In the End, Bi­har’s Bet­ter Off

The Nitish-BJP gath­band­han will be bet­ter for gover­nance and growth

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Swami­nathan S An­kle­saria Ai­yar

Bi­har chief min­is­ter Nitish Ku­mar, once seen as a pos­si­ble fu­ture Prime Min­is­ter head­ing an anti-BJP front, has bro­ken a mil­lion lib­eral hearts. He has bro­ken the ma­ha­gath­band­han (grand al­liance) with anti-BJP par­ties, dumped Lalu Prasad Ya­dav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) as his coali­tion part­ner, and formed a new min­istry with BJP sup­port. The grand al­liance lies in tat­ters, in­ca­pable of threat­en­ing Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi in the 2019 gen­eral elec­tion.

This is a set­back for sec­u­lar­ism. For­mally, the BJP calls it­self a sec­u­lar party. Modi has just de­clared that on the com­ing 70th an­niver­sary of In­dian in­de­pen­dence, his ‘Sankalp ki Sid­dhi’ (Keep­ing the Vow) will strive to erad­i­cate cor­rup­tion, com­mu­nal­ism, casteism, ter­ror­ism, filth and poverty. Fine words. But they do not sit well with a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate that has en­cour­aged lynch mobs and ter­ri­fied the mi­nori­ties.

Gangsta Rap

How­ever, Nitish Ku­mar’s volte face can be viewed through an­other lens. Even for those who think it is bad news for In­dia, the ques­tion must be asked, ‘Is it good for Bi­har?’ Will a Nitish-BJP gov­ern­ment pro­vide bet­ter gover­nance and pros­per­ity for Bi­har than a Nitish-Lalu-Congress al­liance?

Very prob­a­bly, yes. From 2005 to 2013, the Nitish-BJP coali­tion in Bi­har yielded the best pe­riod ever for im­proved gover­nance and eco­nomic growth. By gen­eral con­sent, Bi­har’s per­for­mance de­te­ri­o­rated af­ter Ku­mar broke with the BJP in 2013. He won the 2015 elec­tion in an al­liance with Lalu Ya­dav’s RJD, and lib­er­als hailed this as a vic­tory for sec­u­lar­ism. But it was not a vic­tory for other forms of good gover­nance.

The al­liance with Lalu Ya­dav was seen — cor­rectly — as op­por­tunis­tic, not prin­ci­pled. It al­lowed the Ya­dav fam­ily to once again put its snout into the pub­lic trough, hurt­ing Ku­mar’s rep­u­ta­tion for hon­esty and good gover­nance. Af­ter all, he had spent decades cas­ti­gat­ing Ya­dav’s po­tent mix­ture of cor­rup­tion and gang­ster­ism as ‘jun­gle raj’.

Now, crit­ics will call Ku­mar’s re­turn to the BJP op­por­tunis­tic. Cer­tainly, it tar­nishes Ku­mar’s sec­u­lar cre­den­tials. But it helps his cre­den­tials for hon­est gover­nance. By break­ing with Ya­dav on cor­rup­tion, Ya­dav has re­gained some of the mo­ral glow he lost by team­ing up with the cre­ator of jun­gle raj.

Be­fore Ku­mar came to power, Bi­har was viewed as the most cor­rupt Slough of De­spond. He helped ac­cel­er­ate the state’s GDP growth to al­most 10% a year for a decade. Bi­har was in­fa­mous for gang­ster rule un­der Lalu Ya­dav from 1990 to 2005.

But on as­sum­ing of­fice in 2005, Nitish Ku­mar de­vised po­lice-le­gal re­forms the like of which have never been seen in any other state, and speed­ily jailed 90,000 gang­sters. The huge im­prove­ment in law and or­der was a key fac­tor in re­viv­ing a mori­bund econ­omy, quite apart from im­prov­ing pub­lic safety.

Ku­mar built roads at a record pace in his first term. At the time, the state had very lit­tle elec­tric­ity, and roads were among the few sec­tors where the power short­age did not crip­ple eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity. In his sec­ond term, Ku­mar was able to buy sur­plus elec­tric­ity from the east­ern grid and go all out on ru­ral elec­tri­fi­ca­tion. By end­ing Ya­dav’s ‘jun­gle raj’ and pro­vid­ing roads and elec­tric­ity to the ma­jor­ity of vil­lages, he gal­vanised the econ­omy.

Rapid GDP growth meant that the state’s own rev­enues — mar­shalled ex­pertly by deputy chief min­is­ter Sushil Modi of the BJP — gal­loped up­ward by 20-30% a year. This, along with big in­creases in trans­fers man­dated by the Fi­nance Com­mis­sion, en­abled Ku­mar to hugely in­crease pub­lic spend­ing in in­fra­struc­ture and so­cial ser­vices.

Fod­der for Growth

The BJP was the ju­nior part­ner in the coali­tion from 2005 to 2013. But it pro­vided some of the bet­ter min­is­ters in the­gov­ern­ment.They­helped­bur­nish Ku­mar’s im­age as a non-cor­rupt, de­vel­op­ment-ori­ented chief min­is­ter. Cor­rup­tion did not cease. But the worst ex­cesses of Ya­dav were checked.

Ku­mar made a dis­tinc­tion be­tween the BJP and Naren­dra Modi: the lat­ter clearly of­fended Ku­mar’s Mus­lim sup­port­ers. When Modi of­fered fi­nan­cial help to Bi­har af­ter it was hit by the ru­inous Kosi flood of 2008, Ku­mar re­fused to ac­cept the money. When the BJP chose Modi to lead its 2014 gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign, Ku­mar broke re­la­tions with it.

So, many lib­er­als hailed him as a heroic sec­u­lar cham­pion. Their ap­plause rose when his grand al­liance beat Modi in the 2015 state elec­tion. But this ad­mi­ra­tion was al­ways mis­placed. Far from op­pos­ing the BJP in prin­ci­ple, Nitish has, since1998, been one of its close part­ners. He broke with the BJP in 2013 on the nar­row cal­cu­la­tion that ty­ing up with Modi would cost him more Mus­lim votes than it would gain on the Hindu side. He now knows bet­ter.

His­tory sug­gests that the qual­ity of gover­nance and eco­nomic growth in Bi­har will im­prove with the new Nitish Ku­mar-BJP com­bine, as in 2005-13. But will this be off­set by a rise in com­mu­nal vi­o­lence? The BJP’s cur­rent ethos has en­cour­aged lynch mobs and com­mu­nal mur­ders. Yet there are rea­sons for op­ti­mism.

The Nitish-BJP coali­tion of 200513 over­saw har­mo­nious com­mu­nal re­la­tions. There is a case for hop­ing that the new Nitish-BJP com­bine will not worsen com­mu­nal har­mony in Bi­har, and will be far bet­ter than the grand al­liance was for gover­nance and eco­nomic growth.

What do you mean you didn’t want to throw him out with the bath­wa­ter?

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