It is models-defining time in Indian politics. There is the cowboy Narendra Modi model, the bleating mai-baap Nitish Kumar model and lately even a quick-gun DMK model. The last seems to advocate that there can be one foreign policy for the states and one for the centre and the two can be at variance. If we ignore that as DMK-posturing for the moment, it is the Modi vs Nitish model that is open to debate after the Bihar chief minister offered himself as the one to emulate at his massive rally in the capital last Sunday.
Kumar’s model is simple: he will support whichever coalition grants Bihar a special-state status. Sadly it is an outdated model, one that will take India back into the past of sops and subsidies and ‘special status’ states dependent on largesse from the Centre which they then proceed to waste not on development but on expenses like salaries of bloated staff or grandiose projects of the kind Mayawati made most infamous.
Against this, Modi presented a vision of a state which is so different as to be immediately arresting. Speaking at the recent India Today conclave, Modi declared that the business of governments was not business. He talked of harnessing solar energy by installing panels over canals and he suggested partial privatization of that holy cow, the railways. Even if he still had no words of contriteness for his sins of omission and commission in 2002, Modi’s vision of development was far removed from Nitish Kumar’s reactionary stance.
For good measure, Kumar was generous enough to propose special status for other states as well. In the past Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Goa and Puducherry have all made similar demands. Just how specious is this? Rajasthan’s demand, for instance, was based on its harsh topography, shortage of water following scanty rains and poor roads and other infrastructure. But isn’t that what a government is expected to address.
Presently, 11 states have the special-status tag: the seven North-eastern States, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. The special-state status governs Centre-state finances. It entails a state getting a bigger share of the Centre’s resource pie and significant excise duty concessions to help industrial development.
Nitish’s thinking reveals a bankruptcy of creativity in dealing with the challenges of development. It forces the conclusion that having done the easy bit – basic house-keeping - and taking nearly eight years over it, he is as helpless as all those worthies who pushed the resource-rich state into the morass it finds itself in today.
The 70:30 loans-to-grants ratio that the Bihar chief minister seeks to overturn would imply that more grants to Bihar would automatically lead to faster development. But Bihar’s use of funds hasn’t been particularly efficient.
Take the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, a centrally funded transfer scheme designed to provide connectivity to rural habitations (not revenue village or Panchayat) through provision of all-weather roads. Bihar’s utilization in 2009-10 was below that of 14 other states.
And it isn’t just Bihar. Take Orissa, another state which has also at some point sought special status. Recently Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen questioned the Orissa government’s low level of utilization of central funds released for various development projects and welfare schemes. Sen said that in areas such as power, urban development and partly rural development, the state had failed to utilise even 50% of the assistance provided by the Centre.
Facing severe political challenges at home, Nitish Kumar is now doing exactly what every embattled politician of the past has done—lay the onus on the Centre. A new model, one worth emulating by the rest of India, and further one that would have given him the right to aim for national leadership, would have sought to leverage Bihar’s great agro-climatic and geographical potential for development. Of course there are problems with Central grants and their implementation and it may well be that Bihar deserves higher allocations. But for a leader of a state who offers a model for the rest of the country that can hardly be a viable vision.
To be fair, Nitish Kumar did not create the mess Bihar finds itself in. The gap between the per capita income of Bihar and the national per capita income has kept widening since 1950-51, when the planning exercise started.
Nitish’s challenge laid out quite simply by the Planning Commission is: “For Bihar, acceleration of the rate of growth of around 11 percent during the Eleventh Plan to around 13 percent during the Twelfth Plan will require a massive increase in total investment (public and private)—from around 29.9% in Eleventh Plan to around 45% during the Twelfth Plan period. This has got to be financed by domestic and government savings.”
That’s not happening. According to a review paper by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the per capita expenditure on core municipal services in Bihar in 2012 is abysmally low, compared with other urban centres of similar size. For example, Patna spent Rs. 104 compared to Rs.1,715 in Maharashtra and Rs.576 in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. This is not even sufficient to pay basic establishment expenses, including staff salaries.
The two Ns, Namo and Nitish have taken politics-meets television to a slugfest of one-upmanship. While rainbow politics, saffron white, green and the no-colour of Manmohan Singh, are OK up to a point, Bihar’s big hope has to be in its future, in the future of all the young people of the state. They need a guiding vision that borrows nothing from its bankrupt past but lays out a road map of new, audacious and exponential growth.