Saturday, May 09, 2009

Saibal Gupta : Why Nitish truly matters

He has changed the grammar of governance in the state of Bihar
MOST OF the general election is over. Even though the electoral reality is now locked in EVMs and will get revealed only after a fortnight, certain new contours of social coalition are emerging in the political firmament of the state.
Initially, it was expected that the contest in Bihar will be a bipolar one between NDA and UPA; but with the division in the ranks of UPA later, the Left combination has also come into reckoning at some seats.
At the same time, if the trend of the first three rounds is any indication, the NDA has a substantial edge. It was expected that the breaking up of UPA will lead to a disadvantaged RJD and LJP, because the Congress became a claimant to the minority votes which had titled much towards JD( U). In this backdrop, the electoral process in Bihar has become intensely contested.
The government formation at the Centre will significantly depend on the electoral outcome in Bihar, even though national issues have not bedeviled the electorate here. Ironically, the parliamentary election in the state is revolving around Nitish Kumar and it will be a sort of referendum on his governance. The most important thing is to analyse which new social formation has been constructed in the last three years and which has got fractured. That indeed will determine the outcome of the election.
Past Bihar has always had vibrant social coalitions around which the electoral edifice was built. The state was the theatre of many popular subaltern struggles, beyond the central confine of the freedom movement.
These popular struggles were mainly around the land question, because the state had Zamindari System which was both iniquitous and diabolical. Way back in the 1930s, the Kisan Sabha under Swami Sahajanand had identified 45 types of atrocities perpetrated by the zamindars.
After Independence, the Congress not only benefited from the political capital earned during the freedom movement, but it also incorporated within its fold substantial components of the subaltern upsurge. This heritage was formidable enough to keep the socialists and Communists at bay till the late sixties.
The Congress fabricated a large social “ coalition of extremes”. Even though the traditional upper castes controlled and led the Congress, the party structure in the state was considered to be radical compared to other states in the Hindi heartland, because the party here gave political space to several leaders from the subaltern rank, albeit at lower levels.
With the failure of planning gradually becoming apparent, leading to a “ plan holiday” in the sixties, the Congress either resorted to the plebiscitary politics of ‘ Garibi Hatao ’ , ‘ Bangladesh War’, or ‘ Indira Gandhi’s Assassination’, or the soft politics of ethno- religious mobilisation like ‘ Operation Blue Star’ or opening of the gate of Ramjanmabhoomi . The national tendency of the Congress had a resonance in Bihar as well.
In the process, it lost its inclusive character. The biggest blot on its record of governance was the anti- Muslim Bhagalpur Riots of 1989, whose consequences were allowed to linger. That was arguably the last straw in formalising the fracture of the “ coalition of social extremes”. The appeal of the Congress got restricted to a narrow section of the upper castes which had the experience of governance, but were left without any capacity to win elections. The electoral eclipse of the party was nearly final in the assembly election of 1990 and the parliamentary election of 1991.
A state like Bihar suffers most when the state centric ethos recedes. In the absence of a significant corporate presence, entry into the state sector becomes almost a provincial preoccupation.
In that background, the politics of “ positive discrimination” got ushered in on the implementation of the Mandal Commission.
This movement gave a new lease of life to former socialists who were liquidated during the JP movement.
The movement in Bihar was co- scripted by Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. This resulted in one of the broadest social coalitions in the state comprising the backward castes, minorities and Dalits, with cataclysmic consequences on the electoral front. However, this unprecedented coalition could not last long on the question of the quality of governance in the state.
Nitish Kumar was first to raise the banner of revolt and many partners in the coalition later started deserting it. After the fodder scam case resulting in the resignation of Lalu Prasad and installation of his wife in the saddle, there was a deluge of departures.
Thus, the broadest possible coalition in Bihar’s history got limited to Muslims and Yadavs. But, even this combination could not be electorally viable for long, in the absence of proper governance.
The post- Mandal movement did contribute to electoral democratisation in the state, but it could not script an alternative grammar of governance.
When Nitish Kumar took over the reins of Bihar in 2006 — he practically inherited a non- functioning state. Unfortunately, contrary to the general impression, Bihar was one of the worst governed states in the country, both in the pre- and post- Independence period.
In a state which is not market centric, the role of the state is very important for social mediation, to ensure law and order, and work out a development strategy. During the Congress regime, the state had got little benefit, because the Congress was not an inclusive organisation.
When Lalu Prasad controlled the destiny of Bihar later, he did not attempt to alter the Congress paradigm.
Although, along with Nitish Kumar, he did democratise the polity to create a strong “ social justice” matrix, he failed to incorporate the subaltern section in the state structure.
Breaking from that trend, Nitish Kumar has possibly changed the entire grammar of governance in Bihar.
His techno- managerial strategy has strong components of inclusion, creating a new broad social coalition.
For example, in the realm of minorities, he not only ensured a riot free tenure but also gave them self- esteem through various dedicated social programmes.
His crowning achievement was not only in ensuring the conviction of the Bhagalpur rioters, but also ensuring compensation for the victims.
Over and above, the fencing of minority graveyards across the state was something of an administrative coup. This will forestall an important basis for communal discord — encroachment of graveyards.
Apart from this, his strategy of positive discrimination for single seats in the Panchayati Raj Institutions for women, lower backwards and Dalits, has brought thousands within the structure of actual governance.
A special targeted approach for the lower Dalits, named as “ Mahadalit”, was another administrative innovation.
Such actions will have farreaching consequences for creating a new electorally strong social coalition. The Congress and RJD frittered away the social and political capital accumulated over the years. Nitish Kumar is working out the nuts and bolts of subaltern inclusion through a deft administrative and political strategy.
In the 21st century, symbolic gestures will not matter.
Political parties eager to be electorally viable have to incorporate the subaltern upsurge in a substantive manner, rather than through symbols. The parliamentary election in Bihar is essentially a contest between the symbolic incorporation strategies of the past and the substantive incorporation strategy of the present.
The writer is member secretary, Asian Development Research Institute, Patna