New Delhi: In a historic verdict, Bihar returned chief minister Nitish Kumar’s government to power, indicating that the state, once considered India’s most backward, had moved beyond caste politics and overwhelmingly bought into Kumar’s promise of empowerment through development.
Bihar’s ruling coalition, comprising Kumar’s Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won 206 seats in the 243-member assembly, while the main Opposition, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) alliance, and the Congress were routed. RJD-LJP won 25 seats while the Congress won four.
Analysts see the verdict as a reflection of the aspirations of the people of Bihar, who have largely been left out of the economic boom India has witnessed in the past five years. Many of those with such aspirations are women, who turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote, and young people. The proportion of youth (people under the age of 25) as a percentage of total population isn’t available for Bihar, which sends 40 representatives to the Lok Sabha, but is unlikely to be very different from the national figure of 50%. Analysts have said that in the 2009 parliamentary elections, 35% of the electorate was composed of people between 18 and 25 years.
An analyst credited the win to Kumar’s remarkable turnaround of the state in the past five years. “It is a wonderful result for Indian democracy. If Nitish had lost, or even struggled, it would have sent out a wrong signal to other states that development and governance don’t matter. In that sense, it takes Indian democracy to the next level,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
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If the results increased the sheen on Kumar’s growing image as a politician to be reckoned with, even on the national stage, they also dealt a near-fatal blow to Lalu Prasad, who with his rustic charisma dominated the state’s political arena for 15 years beginning 1990. Rabri Devi, his wife, who also served as chief minister for some years during this era, lost in both the constituencies she contested in.
A win for development
Kumar heralded the victory as one brought about by the coalition’s focus on development. “The outcome of the elections proves beyond doubt that it is a victory for development and for the people of the state,” he said at a press conference in Patna. Since his coalition came to power in November 2005, Kumar has focused on improving infrastructure and making the state a safer place to live and work in. Bihar remains one of India’s most impoverished states and nearly half its 33 million residents are poor.
In the last five years, Bihar’s economy has grown at an annual average of 11.35% compared with 3.5% previously. Government spending on construction of roads was Rs 2,489.15 crore in 2008-09, a 10-fold increase from Rs 263.22 crore in 2005-06.
Some analysts say the country has undergone a distinct shift and the Bihar verdict is a reaffirmation of a trend. “Since end-2007, 15 out 20 incumbent governments—which are arguably those that have delivered a development agenda—have won elections. Increasingly, the electorate appears inclined to reward politicians who execute on economics,” said a note by Morgan Stanley Asia-Pacific on the Bihar results.
The Congress, humiliated in the elections, which ruled the state from 1952 to 1990 in a largely unbroken stint, admitted that it has to begin afresh and rebuild its organization in Bihar. In a rare interaction with the media, Congress president Sonia Gandhi said in Delhi: “We didn’t have much hope. We took a deliberate decision not to work in alliance with other parties. The results obviously indicate that our party has to start from scratch to rebuild itself and that is what we plan to do.”
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The blow came even as the Congress-led government at the Centre is struggling to contain damage caused by corruption accusations levelled against several of its leaders as well a former minister from one of its alliance partners in three separate scams.
The Congress campaign and strategy in Bihar was spearheaded by the party’s general secretary Rahul Gandhi, who is considered a future prime ministerial candidate. Gandhi’s “go-solo” strategy had previously worked in Uttar Pradesh in the 2009 general election.
The Bihar results are bound to come as a disappointment to the party, said Mehta.
“The verdict is definitely negative for the Congress,” he said. “With so much effort and energy being put in the revival of the party, if it is not gaining momentum on the ground in such a crucial state, it is a definite setback for the party. After all, it is a national party and it has been in power in the Centre for six years now.”
The surprise in the results has been the performance of the BJP, which was forced to adopt a moderate middle-path approach in its campaign by Kumar. He had insisted on keeping away two of his coalition partner’s most controversial leaders—Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi. Analysts say the Bihar results could encourage the party to take a more centrist and development-oriented line than it has in the past.
Kumar, expected to take oath as chief minister on Friday, said he expected the years ahead to be tough. “I will need to work harder than I did in the last five years,” he said.
Ruhi Tewari of Mint and PTI contributed to this story.