Later this week, the electorally crucial state of Bihar will be ready for polls to elect a new assembly. At stake is not just the future of incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar. The outcome will also be a verdict on the game changing policy manoeuvres initiated in the last five years, which have, among other things, spurred growth in the state to unprecedented levels and created an entirely new set of stakeholders, not necessarily within the conventional caste template.

It will, therefore, be interesting to see how these new stakeholders vote in the the elections drawn out over a month. More importantly, will this breath of fresh air be sufficient to overcome the conventional political mobilization based on caste and religious configurations or at least tip the vote in favour of Kumar in crucial electoral contests? This will be the political economy of the Bihar elections.

Whether by design or accident, the changes initiated in the last five years work perfectly, at least in theory, to overcome the political handicap accruing from Kumar’s caste, Koormi. The Koormis are numerically not as significant as say the Yadavs are for former chief minister Lalu Prasad. Evidence suggests that Kumar has managed to reach out to a wider caste base by targeting the most backward community among the other backward classes (OBCs) and the Maha Dalits (a section that Kumar created that now includes all but one of the 24 scheduled castes) among the Dalits by profering economic benefits. Both these segments in the past have, despite their numbers, failed to obtain any significant economic favours. It has allowed the chief minister, whose party has an electoral alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the comfort of a rainbow coalition to offset his niche status in the caste hierarchy.

At the same time, the government has evolved a development strategy that is built around disintermediation. By providing road connectivity, it has brought the consumer closer to the producer and ejected traditional intermediaries. It has enabled faster delivery of governance, especially in ensuring law and order across the state. Road development has proceeded at a scorching pace: according to the state’s Economic Survey, 2,417km of roads were constructed in 2008-09 compared with 415km in 2005-06—Kumar’s first year in office.

Similarly, the incumbent regime has sought to give a big push to education, especially at the rural level. Accordingly, it has moved to hire 100,000 new teachers for rural Bihar, improved the pupil-teacher ratio, enhanced the gross enrolment rate to 95% in 2008-09 and reduced the number of out-of-school children by 56% between 2006-07 and 2008-09. These efforts encourage social disintermediation: teaching people how to fish is vastly different from handing them the fish; the empowerment that ensues is inevitably permanent in nature.

But probably the most important initiative that the government has undertaken is the launch of the self-help groups (SHGs) around women across Bihar in 2007. The programme, Jeevika, the first World Bank-funded initiative in Bihar in 20 years, was in the initial phase restricted to eight districts—Nalanda, Gaya, Khagaria, Muzaffarpur, Purnia, Madhubani, Madhepura and Supaul—spread over north and south Bihar; by February this year, there were 17,044 SHGs with 196,000 members.

The thrust of the programme is to seek to assist small and marginal farmers in improving their lot through, among other things, access to institutional finance from banks. And, since the SHGs are owned and managed by them, success stories are turning these farmers into influential stakeholders. During a visit to Gaya district earlier this year, some women members revealed how they had even succeeded in obtaining a licence to operate a public distribution system to access foodgrains meant for those living below the poverty line. Capital Calculus had documented this in “Bihar is daring to dream again", published on 28 March.

Once again, SHGs exist outside the traditional governance delivery structure. By empowering the local community to directly access benefits, which are their fundamental right to begin with, Kumar’s government has once again attempted disintermediation. There is an interesting precedent here. The late N.T. Rama Rao had similarly employed SHGs in the early 1980s for the women of Andhra Pradesh to first bypass and later break down the power structure that the Congress had built around the panchayats.

It is not clear as to whether Kumar harbours similar intentions, but definitely it is, like other actions, in his interest to disturb the status quo. At the least, by focusing this action on women, Kumar has, for the first time probably, introduced a gender dynamic into the electoral process.

It is then clear that elections to the 243 assembly seats this year are crucial for a host of reasons other than the usual. To a large extent, the changes initiated in the last five years have a structural flavour to them. In that sense it will be difficult to undo the gains (though they can be slowed) as the aspirations of people have been stoked. In this context, therefore, the verdict, due by 24 November, will then mostly be about whether it is a case of policy continuity with change or without it. Either way, Bihar can only look forward.

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Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at