The build-up to Barack Obama’s first-ever visit to India has been so intense that you find yourself getting drawn in by all of the newspaper headlines, magazine covers and TV news bulletins regardless of how interested you are. But without trying to trivialise the importance of India’s foreign relations, there’s another issue here that really deserves some attention: the ongoing election in Bihar.
Indians should be extremely concerned about a state that in many ways has been left behind in the race to develop over the last 60 years. So it’s actually quite encouraging that for the first time as far as I can remember, the issues being discussed aren’t caste or community, but development.
The prevailing view is that if incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar retains power, the progress he’s helped bring the state over the past five years will continue. In the five years Kumar has been in office, Bihar has seen more change than it had in the preceding 15 years.
When he took over in 2005, the state lacked basic infrastructure such as adequate roads, education or health care. Bihar was also crying out for social order and development.
A crucial step toward addressing these shortcomings was Kumar’s push to restore a semblance of confidence in the system by reining in criminal elements, including through the creation of a basic communications infrastructure.
Now, the coalition government of Janata Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is led by Kumar, is seeking a fresh mandate to enable it to build on the achievements so far, so Bihar can compete economically with other states in India.
And what of the Rashtriya Janata Dal party (RJD), led by former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, under whose effective leadership of 15 years the state became a byword for backwardness? The party has been campaigning hard, and there’s a good chance it won’t come in last when the election result is announced on November 24.
The other major party battling away in this crucial election is the Congress party, which is fighting alone for the first time in 10 years after breaking away from its former coalition partner, the RJD. Of course, the party is still using some of its old tricks—trying to cobble together an alliance of different communities and religions. But the Congress, which ruled Bihar for four decades following independence, must take significant responsibility for the failure to develop this resource-rich region.
So far, Kumar seems to be the only who has captured the public imagination—the past five years have given people there some hope of change. That said, when the base you’re starting from is as unimpressive as Bihar’s, any improvement looks great.
However, one thing to remember is that Kumar started with a slate so blank that whatever little has been achieved is bound to look great in comparison to what came before. There’s still a lot to be done, whether it’s education infrastructure, reform of the medical sector or a better-performing power sector (most of the districts in Bihar currently are without power for more than 12 hours each day).
Another crucial change will be tackling bureaucratic inefficiency and political corruption—despite there having been some moves on this over the past few years, there’s still plenty more needs doing.
The people of Bihar currently have high hopes for Kumar. It’s something India’s most famous upcoming guest can probably empathise with.