Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Prospect of liberal politics in India today - Part 1

The verdict, in the Bihar state assembly election held in November 2010, has attracted a lot of interest across India. The ruling coalition of Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)), and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won a record 85% of the seats, 206 seats in a house of 243. Did this huge margin of victory, signify a major shift in Indian politics? Is the political agenda in India being reshaped? What does this election really tell us about the future political direction in India? I attempt to answer some of these questions in this two-part article. 

In this the first part, I analyse at the political scene in Bihar. And in the second part, I try to assess the direction Indian politics may take in the coming years, here.

Part 1: Lessons from the Bihar assembly election of 2010

Political configuration in Bihar 2010

This was the first major state to hold an election, since the general election to the national parliament (Lok Sabha) held in the summer of 2009. Naturally, there was a lot of interest to understand whether the verdict will be relevant only locally, or would it have national significance. Next year, 2011, as many as 5 or 6 states are expected to go to the polls to elect their legislators. So there was a high level of interest in the Bihar election, and speculation on the possible political fall out in the coming round of elections, and also on the probable impact on the political dynamics at the national level.

Secondly, the general expectation, and the opinion polls, had all indicated that the ruling coalition of JD(U), and BJP, will be re-elected. What was uncertain was the margin of victory.

Thirdly, Bihar is a state where caste based identity politics had struck deep roots. Almost all the major political parties in the state have come to rely upon the core caste based support it has. But in this election, there was a general consensus that issues of development - law and order, roads, electricity, employment, - were at the forefront during the campaign. So, there was a great deal of interest to see if the election really tilted the balance in favour of the development agenda.

Then there were other lesser themes running through this two month long election schedule. Given that most people expected the ruling coalition to win, there was an interest to see which of the two parties in the coalition would fare better. To keep the coalition together, BJP had to soft pedal its Hindu religious agenda.

There was also an interest to know how the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the party led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, who along with his wife, had ruled Bihar continuously between 1990 and 2005, through three legislative terms. The question was would the social coalition of Dalits (among the most oppressed castes), the Yadavs (among the backward castes) and the Muslims, that had seen the RJD through for 15 years, will continue to hold or dissipate.

The Indian National Congress (INC), the principal party in the national coalition government in Delhi, was seeking to make a comeback in the two major Hindi speaking states of the north – Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Over the past 30 years, INC had slowly but steadily lost its support base in these two major states. But INC had done surprisingly well in the UP in the 2009 general election to national Parliament, and so there was speculation that perhaps the party had turned a corner, and might improve its position in Bihar.

Finally, among the other major parties, there was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has emerged at the national level over the past two decades. The BSP now rules the largest state in India, Uttar Pradesh, having won the election to the state assembly in 2007. The BSP primarily represented the Dalits, which constitute about 20% of India’s population. But it changed its political strategy in prior to 2007, to include the poor, the religious minorities, and the disadvantaged among different social segments, and had built an unique rainbow coalition, which had propelled it to power on its own, in UP. So there was an interest to see if the BSP with its recent successes will have any impact in Bihar.

The past and the present in Bihar

Bihar is a major state in India, lying on the gangetic plains. It is politically a very significant state too. Yet, economically and socially, Bihar ranks among the lowest in India, in per capita income, or life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, and many other developmental indicators. Over the past twenty-five years, there was a general sense, that Bihar moves only in one direction, which is, downwards, falling further behind the rest of the country.

Bihar had produced many leaders of national prominence during the decades of India’s struggle for Independence. The first President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, hailed from Bihar. In the first three decades after Independence in 1947, Bihar had a major role in shaping the social and political agenda of the country. During 1975-77, Indian democracy was under a cloud under the ‘Emergency’ rule of Mrs Indira Gandhi, when many constitutional rights and freedoms were suspended, Bihar was at the forefront of the movement to restore democracy in the country. Many of the current generation of political leaders are a product of that national movement.

Yet, over the next three decades, Bihar had lost its political prominence. Bihar had become synonymous with the worst of India’s social and political life. Identity politics of caste and religion fragmented the social fabric. Corruption and crime sky rocketed. Some of the worst forms of caste oppression and violence were witnessed in Bihar. Parts of the state were under the grip of extreme left wing forces. In other parts, mafia dons ruled their own fiefdom with impunity. Economic development had come to halt. Kidnapping had emerged as the most lucrative business. People, rich and poor, migrated out of the state in search of employment and safety. People of Bihar seemed to have lost their self-confidence and their pride. That was 2005.

The fifteen year rule of the RJD led coalition, in Bihar came to an end in 2005. Mr Nitish Kumar of the JD(U), formed a coalition government with the BJP. The soft spoken Mr Kumar was a study in contrast to the flamboyant Mr Prasad. With this election victory, people of Bihar seems to have confirmed their faith in Mr Kumar and his coalition. In return, Mr Kumar seems to have helped people regain their pride to be a resident of Bihar. 

Socially and economically, Bihar still has a long way to go. But there are a few things that the ruling coalition seems to have done in the past few years that have clearly impressed the people.

The most visible change was in restoration of law and order. Kidnappings declined dramatically. For the first time in years, people felt a degree of security. Even many parts of Patna, the capital city on the Ganges, particularly the river front had been abandoned to the criminals and bootleggers. Today, families with children feel safe to spend their afternoon and evening on the banks.

Apparently, the government had clearly instructed the police not to be swayed by any extraneous influence, but enforce the law. It is believed that about 50,000 suspected criminals were locked up.

The Economist, the international weekly magazine, reported on the changes in Bihar. Where there were no roads, now there were pot holes, recognizing the major effort of the state government to rebuild the roads and bridges.

Another popular step seems to have been the effort to promote education among girls. Hundreds of thousands of bicycles were distributed among girls who continued their education to the high school level. This step alone was credited with reducing the drop out rate among girls by about 25%.

In an effort to promote greater political participation among women, the state government also reserved half the seats in village councils, the third tier of electoral democracy in India, to women.

And women did participate in a major way during the recent election. According to Election Commission of India, 10% more women voted than men, when the overall voter turn out is estimated at about 54%. The turn out was 6% more than the number of people who voted in 2009 during the Parliamentary election.

In general, economic growth rate in Bihar has been averaging over 10%, higher than the national rate, for the past few years. This has been primarily driven by government expenditure on infrastructure.

While there has been a visible change in the ground situation in Bihar, it would be incorrect to assume that the bold efforts of the ruling coalition to improve governance had been the only factor that is responsible for its electoral success in 2010.

Development was clearly on the political agenda in Bihar as never before. But Mr Kumar also had undertaken a new form of social engineering. He promoted special welfare measures for two segments of the caste cauldron, in an attempt to create new sense of identities. Traditionally, social welfare programmes for the oppressed and underprivileged castes were captured by the more advanced segments within these sections. So Mr Kumar initiated special welfare programmes for the most backward among the Dalits (the Maha Dalits). He did the same for the most backward of castes (MBC) from among the other backward castes (the OBC).

In addition, Mr Kumar ensured that his coalition partner, the BJP, did not pursue the hardline Hindu agenda that alienates other religious groups, particularly the Muslims. Some of the more strident Hindu voices of the BJP, including the Chief Minister of Gujart, Narendra Modi, were not invited to campaign for the party.

These factors helped the ruling coalition to not only to consolidate their traditional social base, but also move break the core support base of the opposition as well. It prevented polarization of opinion among religious ground. And it prevented the consolidation of traditional caste support base in favour of the opposition.

Does this mean that identity politics continues to have a place even while developmental issues are emerging on the political horizon? To understand this question, one has to look back at the evolution of the Indian political scene over the past 60 years.

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