That old curmudgeon V.S. Naipaul once described Bihar as being the place where civilisation ends. As the curtain goes up on the 2010 assembly elections in the state, he might want to revise that view. The political significance of these elections and their outcome on the fortunes of the political parties in the fray are seen from the fact that the Congress, the BJP, the RJD and the ruling JD(U) have come out all guns blazing from the word go.
The state in which elections were once determined by caste has undergone a radical transformation and today most of the political formations are firing from the development platform after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar used this effectively to turn around the fortunes of the once benighted state. Today, its growth rate is 11.35 per cent from 3.5 per cent five years ago. If the development agenda continues to sell, and there is no reason why it should not, the ruling JD(U)-BJP alliance will be difficult to beat. After the Ayodhya verdict and the muted saffron response to it, Mr Kumar is not as chary as before of sharing a platform openly with the BJP. This explains why no less than veteran leader L.K. Advani has hit the ground running in the run-up to the first phase of polling. The chief minister has a seemingly unbeatable combination in his favour, the OBCs, the upper castes courtesy the BJP and the Muslims who have reposed faith in his secular credentials and his ability to deliver on livelihood issues.
The Congress, despite the opening salvos by its big guns like UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi, is not looking to capture the state. Rather buoyed by its fairly good showing in both Bihar and UP in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, it hopes to improve its vote share, something which looks very likely given the level of enthusiasm for Rahul Gandhi. This could also vindicate the party’s ‘go it alone’ stance, something it tried in both UP and Bihar in the last general election. Lalu Prasad, the former strongman of Bihar is looking uncharacteristically shaky, unable to reinvent his party from its caste orientation to a more progressive one. But the formidable Lalu cannot be written off and he will leave no stone unturned to unsettle his bete noire Mr Kumar and preserve his family’s foothold in the state’s politics. Whether Mr Kumar does as well as he did last time or not, he will be credited with bringing Bihar out of the dark ages and putting it back on the map. Now many may argue that his development agenda is not as impressive as made out, but the fact is that Bihar is a talking point in the positive sense today. Whichever party gets the upper hand, one thing is clear. Bihar can no longer be dismissed in Naipaulean terms, it could well become the place where a new civilisation begins.