Chapra/Hajipur: Ritu Singh, a 19-year-old girl, left her village to work at an automobile showroom in Chapra, a town in western Bihar, a year ago. Singh is pursuing her graduation and wants to become a teacher.
Singh is the first woman in her landowning Bhumihar family to head out in search of better education and a job (she ultimately wants to settle down in Delhi) but, across Bihar, she is by no means atypical.
Bihar is second only to Uttar Pradesh in the number of people emigrating to other parts of the country, according to the 2001 census—most in search of jobs, education or business opportunities. The 2011 Census does not give migration figures.
Once notorious as a lawless and backward state, Bihar has witnessed a sea change. Ever since chief minister Nitish Kumar led his Janata Dal (United) to form a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2005, the debate in Bihar has swung from problems of caste and religion to how to achieve economic growth, development and good governance, triggering aspirations among young people like Singh.
When Kumar took over the reins of the state in 2005, its growth rate was 12.17%, compared with a -5.15% growth rate in 2003-04. By 2006-07, it was growing at 15.69%. Bihar’s economic growth rate for 2012-13 was 14.48%.
Kumar successfully fought two state assembly elections on the development plank. The aspirations unleashed by the high growth has helped raise the bar for any new government or party seeking a mandate.
With BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi also harping on development and good governance, the priority for voters—especially the youth in Chapra, Hajipur and Muzaffarpur, which go to the polls on Wednesday—is a system that addresses their concerns and supports their desire for upward mobility.
“I want to do a lot of things but more simply secure a job when I finish my studies, travel freely in public transport and feel safe. I am hopeful that a change in the government will help create better opportunities,” Singh said.
S.L. Rao, Bangalore-based sociologist and former director general of the National Council for Applied Economic Research, explained the trend of emigration: “I believe it is mostly the younger population that is migrating out. People who are moving out are moving for better living, better jobs and better environment. I don’t think many from the economically weaker section are migrating for education because it requires a good investment,”
The political realignment and other developments that have followed the break-up of the JD(U)-BJP coalition government in June 2013 seem to have encouraged voters to look for change or experiment with their vote. The field has been opened up by rising pro-Modi sentiments in urban and semi-urban areas, and a resurgence of former chief minister Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) after Prasad’s brief imprisonment on corruption charges.
With those below the age of 40 making up 57.58% of an electorate of more than 60 million, this election in Bihar is likely to see aspirations, twinned with frustration over joblessness and price rise, as some of the key electoral issues among voters in this age group.
Sachidanand Sharma, head of the political science department at Patna University, says that the presence of “aspirational young” voters could be a decisive factor in the elections.
“In this election, there are a lot of voters in the state who are young and unemployed. Students pass out of colleges and don’t get jobs. Caste as a factor can never be ruled out in a state like Bihar but the promise of growth and jobs are important in these polls,” he said.
According to Sharma, a section of young voters is likely to support Modi-led BJP. “There are young men working in small restaurants and tea stalls that line the cities in Bihar. They feel if a (one-time) tea seller like Modi could go so far, they too can, by supporting him. No one went and told this to them; it kind of self-ignited,” he said.
In Bihar, the Congress party is in alliance with the RJD, the BJP has found a partner in Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the JD(U) is going it alone.
This triangular fight has narrowed to a straight contest between the RJD and BJP in Saran, a constituency represented by Lalu Prasad. With Prasad barred from contesting the election because of his conviction on corruption charges, his wife Rabri Devi is standing in to face the BJP’s Rajeev Pratap Rudy.
Voters here are keen to support the BJP for its promise of good governance.
Ranjit Kumar Gupta, a 32-year-old marketing professional who works at his brother’s cosmetics and bangles shop in Chapra’s Hathua Market, is one such voter. “I want a government which can simplify the processes for me, de-clutter the bureaucratic processes. If I go to file my taxes or buy a new property, I should not be asked to pay a bribe to the officers or wait for years for my file to get cleared,” said Gupta, who sends both his children to the “first good” English-medium school in the city.
Despite high growth rates, Bihar is still grappling with poverty—the proportion of people below the poverty line came down only marginally from 54.4% in 2004-05 to 53.5% in 2009-10, according to the Planning Commission.
The commission’s poverty estimates for 2011-12 show Bihar has a poverty rate of 33.74% against the national average of 21.92%.
In rural Bihar, voting choices are made for different reasons. Guddi Devi, an accredited social health activist (ASHA worker) in Hajipur’s Bakarpur village, says she is not able to move up in life due to bureaucratic mismanagement.
Devi says she is supposed to get Rs.700 for every child birth she assists in but her salary never comes in time, which means she is forced to pay Rs.100 in bribes each time to draw her legitimate salary. “Yahan toh har kaam ke liye chhattis baar salaami deni hoti hai (for every work here, you have to bribe the officials several times),” said Devi, a mother of two.
The number of first-time voters in the 18-19 years category is 23.16 million, or 2.8% of the national electorate, according to the Election Commission of India (EC). Of these, 41.4%, or 9.59 million, are female and 58.6%, or 13.56 million, are male.
Ranjeet Kumar Paswan, 18, in Hajipur says all political parties should try and understand the problems of young adults like him. Going to vote for the first time on Wednesday, one of the candidates seeking Paswan’s vote is Ram Sunder Das, the sitting MP from the constituency. He is 93.
“Imagine, he is more than five times my age. He would never be able to understand the young people and their desires. This is the kind of alternative that our political system provides,” said Paswan, who supports the BJP and is going to vote for its ally, the LJP.
Both Paswan and his father, Munna Paswan, will vote for the same candidate—Ram Vilas Paswan, the head of the LJP—but for different reasons. While the son is voting for the party’s alliance with the BJP, the father is supporting his “fellow caste man”.
The political rhetoric around development and aspirations is still subdued in Bihar, according to Sanjay Kumar from New Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Society.
“It is very subdued. Everything in a way is revolving around alliances. No one is talking about development (in Bihar), evident from the fact that there is neither a discussion around Nitish Kumar’s first term in Bihar nor one about Narendra Modi’s so-called Gujarat model,” Kumar said.