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Bihar's law, Nitish Kumar's order

"Lalu lathi se marta tha, Nitish kalam se marta hein (Lalu hits with the club, and Nitish hits with the pen)". This is how Sukhanandan Rai, a Bhagalpur villager, contrasted the styles of Bihar’s political rivals, both champions of backward caste empowerment. Varghese K George reports. Nitish Raj: Balance sheet

patna Updated: Nov 02, 2010 10:22 IST
Varghese K George
Varghese K George
Hindustan Times

"Lalu lathi se marta tha, Nitish kalam se marta hein (Lalu hits with the club, and Nitish hits with the pen)". This is how Sukhanandan Rai, a Bhagalpur villager, contrasted the styles of Bihar’s political rivals, both champions of backward caste empowerment.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar has been saying that empowerment must come not by wielding the lathi — as Prasad used to propagate — but pens, meaning, through learning.

Rai is a supporter of Prasad and a bitter opponent of Kumar. "Hitting with the pen" is a phrase he uses to represent bureaucratic overlordship — ‘officershahi — a new word in the state’s political lexicon – that he is frustrated with. "I have been traveling 15 km for the last 10 days to open a bank account. I am turned away everyday since I cannot pay bribe," he says. Parimal Singh joins in. "Every mukhia has taken money to appoint teachers in village schools," he says. "We have teachers who cannot write their own names."

Soon, Rai concedes two achievements of Kumar. "Earlier goons roamed around the countryside and murders were common. Today nobody dares do that. And the roads are really good."

Whoever you ask in Bihar — Rajput or Yadav, Kurmi or Brahmin — you will get broadly the same opinion (see graphics) though their voting decisions would be influenced more by their caste.

The contradiction in Rai's exposition — praising and deriding Kumar in the same breath — is only superfluous. What he offers is a compact commentary on new modes of rent seeking in Bihar. Better law and order is sustained not by controlling criminals alone, but by the expanded government expenditure that gives unprecedented opportunities for appropriation through contracts and employment. "Crime is an enterprise. Those who were into crime have found new opportunities," a government official said. Bihar has spent Rs 37,000 crore on roads and Rs 6,000 crore on irrigation in the past five years. "There is enough money to be made which I don’t need to hide and why should I do illegal things," a contractor-cum-former member of the Lok Sabha confessed to this official recently. He used to be a dreaded gangster during the Lalu Prasad regime and even used to shoot rival contractors. "Now we have so many contractors, and yet we need more," the official says.

"Bihar's expanding construction industry, particularly the roads, has absorbed most of those who controlled or committed crimes," says a JD (U) leader who remained anonymous.

Two other sectors have absorbed the restless and mobile sections that can be troublemakers in a volatile situation — the local bodies and expanding teaching jobs. Bihar has nearly 250,000 representatives in panchayati raj (PR) bodies, 8,500 of them village mukhiyas, who control appointments in schools and dole out government schemes such as the Indira Awaz Yojana.

The quotas for women and extremely backward castes (EBCs) that Kumar introduced made the PR system more stable than before, bringing down violence and making the opportunity for appropriation more equitable for the enterprising among all castes. Add to this nearly 150,000 teachers who have been appointed.

"Most of them can’t teach, but on the positive, they will now not become chain-snatchers or a Maoist," says a district magistrate who did not want to be named. "All troublemakers and the prospective ones have been absorbed into the system."

The improvement in law and order and roads is underwritten by corruption and these new modes of patronage. If anything, rents have only increased in the changed Bihar.

The Lalu Prasad regime represented an abrasive form of empowerment, both political and economic. The Nitish Kumar regime, in line with the pattern in advanced states, evolved a new social contract where rents are sought and given in more sophisticated ways — the difference between the rule by the lathi and rule by the pen. Prasad is unable to challenge this and Kumar's social coalition and its logic are stronger.

But Kumar’s dilemma will surface soon. "If you crack down on corruption before expanding economic opportunities outside the government, the law and order situation will become volatile again," a senior police officer said. But then, that’s after the elections.

First Published: Nov 01, 2010 23:54 IST