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Nitish confirms India has great aspirations

The national political message from Bihar: deliver and flourish; be positive, not negative. Do the big two get it? Samar Halarnkar writes.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 17:00 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Nitish Kumar should have been a very unpopular man in south-western Bihar’s Kaimur region, the fertile grain bowl of what is still one of India’s poorest states. Devastated by a drought, Kaimur’s paddy fields are dry, the rice mills are closed, there’s no electricity for 22 hours every day and water is hard to come by.

Nitish — the one-man army who engineered Wednesday’s re-election triumph in Bihar — should have been equally unpopular in the north-eastern region of Purnea and the lands of the river Kosi in the east, still devastated by the floods of 2008. The local economy is in shambles and the men stream out of the villages to find work in the factories and fields of booming northern India.

Yet, the JD (U)-BJP alliance that Nitish runs did as well along the Kosi and in Kaimur and Purnea as it did in returning to power with a three-fourths majority across Bihar, one of the state’s biggest victories.

To understand the result in Purnea, Kaimur and across Bihar is to understand the unfolding revolution of aspiration and expectation reshaping India’s electoral politics; to understand how the old national political terminology of caste, religion and identity is being replaced by the vocabulary of education, jobs, roads and law and order.

Since the 1990s, India has demanded its politicians reflect what Jawaharlal Nehru in 1944 called India’s “new urges and creative tendencies”. Bihar’s results are the latest evidence. They reveal: one, that politics must, above all, meet aspirations; two, once an aspiration is met, it’s time to roll out the next; three, electorates are willing to rank their aspirations, allowing a sincere government time and space; and, four, identity remains a factor, but nowhere as important as it was even 10 years ago.

It helps when expectations hit rock bottom, as they did in Kaimur, Purnea and the Kosi region. Before 2005, they could have aspired only to live and die there with a certain respect that Lalu Prasad — his party down by 32 seats from 2005 — engendered among the lower castes and Muslims. In 15 years, Lalu addressed no other aspiration. To these stricken regions, Nitish delivered law and order, allowing the men of the flood- and drought-hit regions to migrate westward, satisfied that their womenfolk would be safe.

Bihar’s people realise that Nitish, apart from making the state safer, built roads and bridges (about 400 in the last 56 months) — sparking a modest economic revival — pushed women’s empowerment (900,000 cycles were distributed to school girls, pushing up attendance and enrollments) and urged a moribund bureaucracy to work. Nitish realises he’s only just restarted Bihar’s engine and that his people will now expect progress on immense new challenges:

n Agriculture, which employs most Biharis, is shrinking, battered by flood, drought, small landholdings and worsening poverty

n Electricity supply, which falls short of demand by about 250 mega watts every day, hampers investment and sustainable growth (Nitish’s plan: surplus power by 2015)

n Corruption, endemic through Bihar, is rising with the flood of money that Nitish has made available for infrastructure

n Land redistribution, a process that Nitish stopped when he realised it would antagonise supporters from rich and powerful castes. Caste equations aren’t yet dead.

Nitish’s drive for development has so enthused voters that they have been willing to give him time and look beyond the infirmities of the 11% growth (some of those numbers are suspect) he’s delivered between 2006 and 2009. The Congress is indeed correct is saying — Rahul Gandhi repeated it in all his 11 public meetings — that New Delhi pays Nitish’s public-works bills: As the state’s economic survey shows, 72% of Bihar’s expenditure comes from the Centre, up from 40% in 2003-04.

Bihar really doesn’t care. The days of Indira Gandhi and mai-baap largesse politics are long gone.

So, too, is the stranglehold of caste and religion, evident in ironic fashion from the BJP’s remarkable increase in seats, from 55 to 91. The exact vote shares are not yet available as I write this, but the BJP clearly rode on Nitish’s non-denominational, development message. Muslims, otherwise implacably opposed to the BJP and its pro-Hindu politics, voted in large numbers for the alliance. The party sensed Bihar’s changing mood and acquiesced to Nitish’s demand that the divisive Narendra Modi be kept out of electioneering. It’s likely the BJP has never got this many Muslim votes before.

In this age of regional aspirations, India’s two major national parties must realign their politics to stay relevant. Fortunately for the BJP, it has strong administrators in Modi and Raman Singh, Chhattisgarh’s reform-minded chief minister. But in Karnataka it has fallen back on the discredited BS Yeddyurappa and his outdated politics of caste (the BJP fears his removal will antagonise the powerful Lingayat caste), religion and nepotism above governance.

As for the Congress, with merely four seats of 243 in Bihar, it has much to think about. Removing leaders accused of corruption is a good thing, but it is an issue mired in negativity, as was the junior Gandhi’s campaign in Bihar. The new politics of aspiration isn’t about pointless criticism and stemming yesterday’s rot. It’s about today’s progress and showing India the road to tomorrow.