Bihar is often seen as India’s Somalia: a failed state run by a venal political elite, a civil society fractured by caste, a dysfunctional bureaucracy that does not police the streets or ensure that teachers attend school and an economic sinkhole bypassed by the economic boom that has transformed the country. Biharis have voted with their feet, and their mass migration has led to a backlash in cities as diverse as Mumbai, Guwahati and Ludhiana.
Bihar is too big and strategically important to be allowed to wallow in backwardness. The new numbers published by the Central statistics office offer hope of renewal: They show that the state’s output from 2004-05 to 2008-09 grew at a double-digit annual rate, outperforming India as a whole. It is yet not clear what has propelled Bihar’s growth in these years, but one clear possibility is the change of government in the state: from Lalu Prasad to Nitish Kumar.
No economy can grow when the rule of the law has collapsed and deep institutional decline raises the cost of economic activity, constant features on the Bihar landscape since at least the end of the 1980s. The larger lesson is that the politics of redistribution inevitably becomes a grab for resources unless robust economic growth keeps the cake growing. That is the tragic dividend of Mandalism.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
It is hard to believe that Bihar was rated India’s second best governed state after Independence by the Paul Appleby report. The late journalist and political thinker Arvind Das saw Bihar as a metaphor for India. He often pointed out that this is the state of Gautam Buddha and King Ashoka, of Rajendra Prasad and Jayaprakash Narayan. It’s now the state of anarchy.
It is too soon to conclude that Bihar has healed and is ready to participate in the modern Indian economy as an equal partner rather than as a laggard that sucks public funds and sends millions of impoverished immigrants to other states. There is always the danger of reading too much into random bits of statistics; the same mistake was made with West Bengal a few years ago, which grew at around 1 percentage point faster than the national average for around 10 years but really does not offer enough economic opportunity to its residents compared with what states such as Gujarat, Tamil Nadu or Karnataka do.
It is hard to believe that a mere change in the state government can uproot deep-rooted problems within five years. But there is definitely reason to believe that the Nitish Kumar government has done enough to undo some of the worst features of the Lalu Prasad years.
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