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Sanjaya Baru: Importance of Nitish

If Bihar can lift itself up over the next decade, it will lift India with it

Sanjaya Baru  |  New Delhi 

If Bihar can lift itself up over the next decade, it will lift India with it

In the same month that Maharashtra got its first parachuted chief minister in over two decades, Bihar is expected to get its third popularly elected second-term chief minister since Independence.

In its six-decade history, Bihar has had only two spells of uninterrupted chief ministerial tenures, and in both cases the incumbent secured a second tenure. Bihar’s first chief minister Sri Krishna Singh/Sinha had a 15-year tenure that ended with his demise in 1961. After a gap of over three decades, during which chief ministers walked in and out of a revolving door, Lalu Prasad Yadav earned the distinction, in 1995, of being the second chief minister to win a second term in office. But he wasted that mandate and left office in ignominy.

Most pollsters predict that incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar will return to office in Patna later this month. Hopefully he will do so with his head held high and a clear vision of what Bihar needs. If Mr Kumar is able to keep his focus firmly on the state’s development for the next five years, as Narendra Modi has done in Gujarat, and not get seduced by the idea of playing a larger role at the national level, he can make a huge difference not just to Bihar but to India.

If a state of close to 90 million people, accounting for nearly 9 per cent of India’s population, can lift itself up, it will lift the nation up with it. In the run up to state assembly elections this year, what is most striking about Bihar is the new sense of confidence that its people, especially the youth, exude.

Confidence in the future shapes expectations. Expectations shape outcomes.

A popular saying about the government in India is that only three functionaries of the state matter — PM, CM and DM (prime minister, chief minister and district magistrate, respectively). There is an element of truth in that statement. Each is a fulcrum of one level of India’s three-tiered federal administrative system. However, of the three, the most important functionary from the viewpoint of development remains the CM.

What is not often recognised is that the power of the PM has waxed and waned in proportion to that of the CMs in India. In the first decade after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru did not hold sway across the length and breadth of the country in the way his daughter did in the period 1970 to 1977. Panditji understood that he had to administer India through CMs. That is why he regularly interacted with them and engaged them.

The Centre’s power through this entire period was essentially fiscal and the instrument of central planning was used by the Centre to control the levers of development. When Indira Gandhi took charge as the PM, she faced an army of powerful CMs across the country, both from opposition political parties and from within her own party. While the 1970s to mid-1980s was associated with the weakening of CMs and a strong PM, the 1980s witnessed the return of strong CMs.

It is a testimony to the far greater impact of local and regional factors over national planning on development that the pattern of inter-regional development at the time of Independence in 1947 did not alter substantially by the turn of the century. India’s more developed states of 1950 remained India’s more developed states of 2000, and the less developed ones remained the less developed ones.

Central planning hardly made much of a difference to the inter-se ranking of states, even if some states benefited more from it than others. What has really made a difference is agrarian change and investment in human development and infrastructure at the state level. Unfortunately, from the point of view of regional development, these factors continued to fuel growth in the more developed states till very recently.

It is only in the past decade that we witnessed an acceleration of growth in less developed states, especially Bihar, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Little wonder then that most of them have returned incumbent CMs back to power. It is not growth and development alone that have made a difference. Better governance and the image of the CM, as a person committed to the state’s development and people’s welfare, seem to have made a difference too.

While the 1990s was a decade of anti-incumbency around the country, at the Centre and in the states, the past decade has witnessed the return of pro-incumbency, a phenomenon of the 1950s. Thus, almost half the CMs in the country today are serving their second term.

Even the top-down Congress party, where the high command prefers to keep state level leaders off balance all the time, could not prevent Sheila Dikshit, late Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, Tarun Gogoi and Bhupender Hooda from getting their second (third in Ms Dikshit’s case) term.

Admittedly, different factors have influenced the return of pro-incumbency in different states, but what seems common to all situations is a fairly generalised view that the incumbent CM has focused on the developmental priorities of the people and has emerged as a symbol of the state’s personality.

The importance of Mr Kumar’s re-election is that Bihar’s economic resurgence is, as would be in the case of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, vital to sustaining 9 per cent growth at the national level.

Unlike in China, where the fastest-growing coastal regions are also the country’s more densely populated regions, in India high growth has so far been concentrated in less populated peninsular India and bypassed the more populated plains of central and northern India. The transformation of Bihar is, therefore, vital to the transformation of India.

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First Published: Mon, November 15 2010. 00:55 IST