The return of Shibu Soren to power in Jharkhand exemplifies all that is wrong with the idea of small states in India. The story of the 28th state of the Union should serve as a timely warning about the pitfalls on that path.
Soren, a prototypical son of the soil, rode to power on well-known themes: underdevelopment and under-representation of backward areas in big states. Before it became Jharkhand, south Bihar had everything that spelled a better future. It possessed natural resources and an industrial base that were the envy of many states. All it lacked was a responsive leadership. Patna, the state capital, was not only distant literally, but politically as well.
Now, nine years later, days before Soren becomes chief minister for the third time, the state’s is a tale gone awry. Corruption is close to being normal behaviour there. In Jharkhand, representative government has a very different meaning from what is commonly understood. No sooner is a government in place than it forgets everything about the people. This is, of course, a problem in other states too. But Jharkhand is a polar extreme of oligarchic rule combined with Byzantine corruption. Mineral resources, developmental aid from the Union government and state revenues and all public resources are fair game for plunder by the party in power. Resources and industries don’t make any difference in this rather bleak political landscape.
One unstated assumption behind the creation of new states is that they are gerrymandered with perfection for regional parties. The ethnic and caste composition of these states is such that parties can command solid majorities year after year. By the time the electorate realizes the adverse outcome, despondency sets in. The Union government throws up its hands in despair and regional parties find new ways to engineer legislative majorities. Today it’s Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Can anyone rule out a similar fate for Telangana and other “statelets” in future?
There is speculation that a new states reorganization commission may look at the question of small states anew. Public sentiment, resources and viability are, of course, familiar assessing devices. But if a commission is set up, it must look at political corruption, a given in India, and its likely impact on governance as a key parameter while redrawing state boundaries.
Small states: cesspools of corruption or vehicles of development? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org