Milan Vaishnav is a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University. His dissertation examines the role of money and serious criminality in Indian state politics. He conducted research in south-central Bihar from mid-October to mid-November 2010.
On November 24, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won a landslide victory in the Bihar assembly elections—securing 206 out of 243 seats. In the immediate aftermath of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s resounding victory, much ink has been spilt on the coalition “magic” of the NDA; the humiliation of the RJD-LJP opposition; and the frustrating disappointments of Congress.
In this column, I would like to share some of my insights on some larger issues related to Bihar’s political economy—some of which have been either overlooked or deserve particular emphasis. These insights are based on field research I conducted in Bihar from mid-October to mid-November during the height of election season.
1. Caste in Bihar is not dead.
In the immediate post-election euphoria, many media outlets were quick to proclaim that the elections results confirmed that “caste is dead in Bihar” as voters sought to reward Nitish Kumar for his achievements on “vikas” (development) and “susashan” (good governance). Many observers billed the contest as one between Nitish and Lalu or “vikas” vs. “jati” (caste). To the contrary, caste was a major factor in the election. As Varghese George and Mammen Mathew stated in the Hindustan Times (November 25, “Changing the Political Context”): “[Nitish] Kumar's campaign speeches rode on the theme of development with the subtext of caste and religious identities. For his rival, Lalu Prasad, caste was the only text and the subtext as well.”
In other words, Nitish did not ignore caste, but was simply savvier in the way in which he utilized it as an electoral tool. It is difficult to deny, for instance, that Nitish is a casteist. According to sources within the JD(U), he was personally been involved in the selection of tickets and in this, he used caste criteria just as Lalu (and everyone else, for that matter) did. In fact, Nitish Kumar’s “Mahadalit” initiative can be seen as a clever ploy to create a vote-bank among Scheduled Castes (SCs) by separating the Paswans (the traditional support base of the Ram Vilas Paswan-led LJP) from other segments of the SCs. The Chief Minister’s policy of reservations for backward sections of Muslims can been seen in a similar light.
2. Yet, development awareness is increasing.
Although it is far too early to proclaim that “caste is dead” in Bihar, one cannot deny that development was a major election issue for the tens of millions of Biharis who went to the polls. Thanks to the development accomplishments of Nitish Kumar, all political formations in the state were forced to discuss development issues on the campaign trail, and even the NDA was compelled to defend its record on the merits. As many villagers admitted to me in our discussions, for the first time in decades the language of elections has shifted from social justice and empowerment to include topics of development.
3. Nitish’s pro-development rhetoric is backed up by real signs of progress. But, corruption is a serious concern.
Nearly everyone I met—irrespective of party or caste—agreed that there have been significant improvements in development over the past five years. Even rank-and-file RJD party members I spoke with in constituency party offices admitted that, as far as development is concerned, Nitish has backed up his words with deeds. My strong impression is that voters were most happy with: 1) improvements in law and order and public safety; 2) road construction; 3) and initiatives aimed at young girls (e.g. schemes that provided free bicycles and school uniforms). When asked about corruption in the state, most people perceive administration at the senior levels to be relatively clean. But there is growing disenchantment with lower-level administration (at the Block Development Officer-level, for instance), where citizens complained that corruption has increased. The perception of most Biharis I interviewed is that corruption has become increasingly decentralized and, in some ways, more pernicious.
4. Political criminality has not been wiped out.
Although many observers have celebrated the decline of criminal politicians (referred to as “bahubalis”) under the Nitish Kumar regime, it is a stretch to say they have been wiped out. Of course, it is true that the NDA government organized fast track courts to try many of the don-turned-politicians and that the law and order situation has dramatically improved. These days, many of Bihar’s most notorious dons (such as Pappu Yadav, Mohammed Shahabuddin, and Anand Mohan) are behind bars. But just as these dons have been locked up, there are other politicians with known criminal connections who not only were given tickets by the ruling NDA but also were elected as MLAs. According to candidate affidavits analyzed by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), 85 of the 243 incoming MLAs (or roughly 35 percent) face pending criminal cases of a serious nature.
However, although many criminal politicians are still thriving in Bihar, my research indicates that their standard operating procedure has been forced to change. As the law and order situation has improved and as the capacity of the state to deliver basic services and administer benefits has increased, the bahubalis’ ability to win votes through coercion and fear has severely declined. As one businessman close to the JD(U) admitted to me privately, Nitish Kumar understands he must give bahubalis tickets because of their local power base. But it is the CM’s hope that as governance improves, the relevance of bahubalis in ordinary citizens’ lives will be reduced.
5. Nitish Kumar lacks an institutionalized vision.
Given all the commentary on Nitish Kumar’s pro-development vision, it is startling to think of how fragile this vision really is. That is to say, a great burden rests on one man’s shoulders to move Bihar forward. The move from Lalu to Nitish is just that: the further institutionalization of personalistic politics. For the vast majority of voters I spoke with who supported the incumbent government, it is all about Nitish—not about JD(U), BJP, or NDA. Whatever success Nitish’s government has achieved, voters have solely attributed to him. To date, it does not seem as if there has been any institutionalization of Nitish’s vision or modus operandi within the JD(U). One clear piece of evidence in this regard is the fact that there is no clear second-in-command within the party or a “bench” of secondary or tertiary leaders within the party who are known statewide figures.
6. Congress had an opening in Bihar, though they did not (or could not) exploit it.
Based on conversations in advance of the elections, many voters expressed their stated desire to see Congress play a larger role in state politics. Many voters, particularly Muslims and Dalits, expressed a desire to vote for Congress candidates in Bihar. However, many of these same voters followed this statement by declaring they were unlikely to do so because they were unhappy with the quality of Congress candidates. The general sense of the voters was that Congress gave tickets to people who were not locals; were not qualified; and lacked a support base. One obvious reality is that Congress may have picked “bad” candidates because it had no other option: it has a limited support base in the state and a weak party organization. However, if Congress invests in party building over the next five years and in grooming a future crop of leaders, the reality of a largely decimated RJD provides an opening for a future resurgence.