India: Turning point for democracy?

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NEW DELHI, India — The odds are good you didn't hear about the state elections this past weekend in Bihar.

But had you been paying attention, what you would have read about happening in this dusty, impoverished outpost in eastern India might just wind up signalling a shift toward better governance for the entire country.

Bihar state, located on the Nepal border and long derided as a basket case, closed the second phase of its six phase state assembly elections Sunday on an unusually optimistic note.

Yes, Maoist rebels succeeded in torching a poll booth and abducting three officials. But the insurgents' routine call for a boycott failed to stop voters. In the first two phases of the election, voter turnout exceeded 50 percent — marking a nearly 10 percent increase in voting from 2005, the last time the so-called backward state held polls.

The reason: Nitish Kumar, the state's reigning chief minister, has rekindled optimism by slowly building a functioning government and squashed fear by jailing notorious, politically connected criminals. His re-election — likely but not guaranteed, when votes are counted on Nov. 24, experts said — could therefore mark a turning point in Indian politics by ending the revolving door of "anti-incumbency" and proving that good governance can trump caste- and creed-based rhetoric.

"This election will be a benchmark election, because it has completely new parameters," said Shaibal Gupta, head of the Asian Development Research Institute, based in Patna, Bihar.

What that means is that a state that has always been ruled by identity politics — with voters choosing candidates based on their caste or religious community — has now begun a substantive debate about development and its economic future.

"Every election is a referendum, but this election assumes a greater character because so many steps have been taken that had never been taken earlier," Gupta said. "We have never had a functioning state, so we had to create new benchmarks."

Bihar was once the seat of the powerful Maurya Empire, which spread Buddhism throughout Asia and as far as the Mediterranean. But for a couple thousand years since then, with a breakneck acceleration over the past 20, it's been steadily marching into ruin.

After the British let feudal landlords run rampant, a series of peasant movements made Bihar instrumental in India's freedom struggle. But once India gained its independence, those movements stagnated, and powerful landlords hamstrung any efforts at land reform until a new political
formation of lower caste herdsmen and laborers raised Lalu Prasad Yadav to the chief minister's chair in 1990.

The victory for the oppressed, far from ushering in a golden age of fairness and prosperity, instead accelerated Bihar's descent into chaos. Open warfare prevailed between the militias of upper caste landlords and lower caste tillers, and Lalu, who ruled virtually without rival for three consecutive terms, despite widespread allegations of corruption, used his power to patronize his caste and install his relatives in positions of power.

By 2004, when he was finally defeated by Kumar, the state was barely functioning — unable to disperse funds for ordinary projects like maintaining roads — and most of the rural hinterland was under control of career criminals. Highway travel was out of the question after dark, and even in the capital, Patna, violent crime ensured that the shops closed and the streets were deserted at 8 o'clock.

Finally elected in 2004 after voters finally grew disgusted with Lalu — a charming Falstaff with a brilliant knack for politics — Kumar started Bihar on the path to a turnaround with a risky gambit. Instead of encouraging his own flunkies to get their own forelegs firmly planted in the government trough, he declared an end to the politics of patronage by ending the "transfer industry" that sold coveted bureaucratic posts to the highest bidder and cracked down on criminals that had long enjoyed political protection.

Setting up fast-track courts and hiring ex-soldiers to speedily fill vacancies in the police, he jailed some 40,000 criminals over his first term — more than four times the number of convictions during Lalu's three terms in power. By re-establishing a functioning government, he also increased government spending on building roads and training hundreds of thousands of primary school teachers dramatically.

From $320 million in 2001, government spending rose to $1.2 billion in 2005-2006, Kumar's first year in office, then rose to $2.2 billion in 2007-2008 and $3.5 billion in 2008-2009, raising economic growth from a laggard 3.5 percent under his predecessors to around 11 percent — the second-highest of any Indian state.

There is, of course, still a chance that Kumar might lose. Elections are notoriously difficult to call in India, and not everything has changed in the troubled state. The number of candidates with criminal antecedents — or those who themselves are facing serious charges — remains as high as 40 percent.

And in some constituencies a new trend has emerged in which relatives are standing against each other for rival parties to ensure that power remains in the family's hands, according to Himanshu Jha of the National Social Watch Coalition, a group that monitors politicians and government performance.

Worse still, despite the progress the state has made, the living conditions for most Biharis remain miserable — leaving open the possibility that the very poor may vote against progress in exchange for the promise of sops.

But so far it appears voters are going to the polls this time convinced that there's more to democracy than simply expressing their displeasure with a venal and incompetent government or making sure the candidate from their own caste or religious community comes to power — though all the major political parties are still fielding candidates based on caste- and creed- formulations.

For example, the controversial Sept. 28 verdict that granted ownership of the disputed site of the destruction of the Babri mosque to Hindu groups, which might have galvanized triumphant rightwing Hindus or disappointed Muslims, has played little role in the campaign. Instead, the debate has centered on issues like building roads and providing reliable electricity — new ideas for politics in Bihar.

The real turning point, though, promises to come after the election — if Kumar wins a second term as expected. Kumar pushed an anti-corruption bill through the state assembly in 2008 that has in recent months been approved by the central government. In his campaign speeches this round, Bihar's sitting chief minister has promised to progress from establishing basic law and order to taking on graft, saying, "The first time, I went after criminals. Next, it will be the turn of the corrupt." And, like his crackdown on crime, the promise could well prove to be more than election rhetoric.

Called the Bihar Special Court Bill, Kumar's new law for the first time empowers government investigators to confiscate assets of bureaucrats and politicians accused of corruption — which was previously impossible even after a conviction. And it sets the stage for fast-track courts like the ones he used to jail 40,000 thugs in four years.

In a state where government funds have always been siphoned off before work could begin, rather than while it was actually underway, the impact could be huge. Indeed, if Kumar wins, the money he confiscates alone might send the turnaround state's economic growth rocketing past his first term's 11 percent.

Moreover, because the Special Court Bill is unique for India, it just might make India's most backward state an example for the rest.

"If a couple of hundred people get punished, and their property gets confiscated, it will send out a message all over the country," said Gupta. "Things will be different."