Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Thursday, Apr 06, 2006
`Development' binds Nitish's coalition of extremes
With the Nitish Kumar Government in Bihar completing four months in office, animated debates rage, in the State and elsewhere, on whether the new Chief Minister will be able to put Bihar on the road to development. Constant comparisons are made between him and the Bihar strongman and Rasthriya Janata Dal chief, Mr Lalu Prasad.
Mr Lalu Prasad headed Bihar for 15 long years on the plank of social justice.
And that slogan remained centre stage during his reign. With Mr Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (U) being in coalition with the BJP, a party associated with the upper classes and castes, the central question in Bihar's politics today is what will happen to that slogan.
While on the one hand, Bihar's socially backward masses decided the contours of its government for 15 years, the privileged or the "chattering classes" in urban centres were demoralised by a non/under-performing RJD government, which failed miserably to take the State towards development.
Today, in Patna it is this latter group that is visibly happy and optimistic about State's development under the new regime.
Whether it is the President of the Bihar Industries Association, Mr K. P. S. Kesri, or the local businessman and real-estate developer, Mr Kishorepuria, they are sure that Bihar is on the road to development.
But the rebuilding Bihar will not be easy, and while the Chief Minister puts in place a new industrial and investment policy and fine-tunes the existing one, the impression you get in Patna is that the socially- and economically-backward classes are not so hopeful of change to their lot in the near future under the new dispensation.
So, will Mr Nitish Kumar move to the back-burner the social justice issue even as he attempts the mammoth task of improving Bihar's image and attracting industrial investments?
Dr Shaibal Gupta, Member-Secretary of the Patna based Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), says the biggest challenge for the new Chief Minister is managing the "coalition of extremes that he heads." During the 15-year Lalu-Rabri rule, "the social justice movement in Bihar was strengthened and there was a societal democratisation which brought people from the marginalised sections to centre stage. And the social base of Mr Lalu Prasad was such that he had to give priority to social justice rather than governance, development or building the State's infrastructure."
In contrast, the Nitish Kumar Government essentially represents the coalition of extremes, "which includes not only the marginalised sections but also people from the upper crust and the upper caste. So, in essence, it is not a homogenous group. The only political lubricant that can carry forward this coalition is the developmental agenda. So, in many ways Mr Nitish Kumar is trying to re-brand Bihar and in the process resurrect several institutions that had collapsed in the last few decades," says Dr Shaibal Gupta.
One primary sector that Mr Nitish Kumar is trying to re-brand/build is education, particularly the university system. One of his first tasks after assuming charge was to meet all the Vice-Chancellors and tell them that his government would ensure that the teachers would not only get their salaries on time, but also their arrears would be cleared in instalments. But in return, they would have to maintain the academic calendar, hold exams on time and in a fair manner.
HOPE AMONG TEACHERS
Dr Renu Ranjan, Head of the Department of Sociology at the Magadh Mahila College, says there is a "new surge of hope within the teaching community. Not only are we getting our salaries and arrears in instalments, he has also restored the retirement age to 62. With the intermediate and other examinations held on time and without the customary vitiation of norms, the students too have realised that there is no alternative to attending classes and studying; no longer can they copy and pass."
On the areas of governance that should get priority in Bihar, Dr Gupta says that apart from improving the law and order situation, the Chief Minister should take up those sectors that would catch the public eye. "He must act immediately to improve the roads and the power situation." Another area deserving attention is water shortage caused by the absence of winter rains. "I think we're going in for a massive drought in the next couple of months," he says.
But the toughest job on Mr Nitish Kumar's hands is land reforms that had escaped Bihar because it was a permanent settlement area during British rule. "Ultimately, Bihar will have to go in for substantive land reforms, including the distribution of the surplus land that is mainly concentrated in the north of Bihar in a few hands. That will be a real challenge," points out Dr Gupta.
But his colleague Dr Prabhat P. Ghosh, Director of ADRI, is doubtful that Mr Nitish Kumar will succeed in bringing in land reforms. "Nitish is not politically powerful enough to tinker with the agrarian system; the old feudal lords may not be there in the same form but the land based interest groups are very strong even now. Lalu, who was much more powerful politically, didn't even make an attempt in this direction. But I do believe that some development and agricultural growth can take place even without land reforms."
But he thinks the new government will run into a roadblock in taking up infrastructure development in areas such as roads, power supply, etc. To begin with, the bureaucracy may not respond with the same alacrity as the new regime. "The bureaucracy is a far stronger institution than the politicians; the bureaucrats know they are permanent and that they cannot be thrown away. And there are two issues one pertains to work ethics, commitment and psychology. But the other has to do with the element of capacity of the administration in terms of number of people, their technical competence, experience, etc. You may have an engineer who was brilliant 20 years ago; but in 20 years if he has not laid a road or built a bridge, his professional capacity must have been eroded. This will prove to be a genuine handicap," says Dr Ghosh.
NO QUICK SOLUTIONS
Despite the legacy that Mr Nitish Kumar has inherited a historically weak government administration, a bureaucracy that has got used to neither working nor being accountable the huge expectation from everyone is that Bihar will now change. The new Chief Minister has neither a magic wand nor any quick-fix solutions.
But he has made a good beginning in triggering optimism that finally Bihar will be put on the road to development. "You will find here a feel-good factor among the elite sections who think that Bihar is again going to be a happening State. Earlier they felt that everything was stagnant and not functioning. So there is a hope. The very fact there is hope without any substantive reason, itself is a very big thing," adds Dr Gupta.
Mr Nitish Kumar also knows how precious this opportunity is. For the time being Mr Lalu Prasad is watching from the sidelines and maintaining, uncharacteristically, a low profile. At the first sign of the "social justice" issue fading off the Bihar Government's radar, he is sure to step in. "And nobody knows this better than Nitish. That is why he is trying really hard to live up to the voters' expectations," adds Ms Ranjan.
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