Home >Opinion >Views >The India story needs Bihar’s economic rise

All those invested in the power of democracy to lift large populations out of poverty have long had their eyes on Bihar, a state whose economic prospects were seen to hinge on overcoming a gridlock of identity politics to allow for electoral contests with jobs growth on the ballot. The final outcome of its assembly polls was not known till Tuesday evening, but the campaign trail did bear signs of a shift in its political conversation. Exit polls had predicted a win for the opposition Grand Alliance led by Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), whose call for “economic justice" was considered a swerve away from his party’s social-justice moorings. Actual vote counting, however, appeared to place the ruling National Democratic Alliance of the Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) closer to power in Patna, if only by a whisker. If the JD(U) chief minister Nitish Kumar had an added cause for anxiety, it may have been on account of his party winning fewer seats than its ally.

Victory celebrations, either way, will be under the shadow of economic distress and memories of a crisis that unfolded after India’s abrupt covid lockdown that turned millions out of jobs and left stranded Bihari migrant workers with little option but to walk hundreds of kilometres back home. More pain awaited many returnees, as reports suggested that bribery was rife in the issue of ration cards for them to avail of the Centre’s relief provisions. Palpable anger against Nitish Kumar at the time gave Tejashwi Yadav, the 31-year-old son of former chief minister Lalu Prasad, an opening to shape a campaign narrative around joblessness, the treatment of migrants and alleged mishandling of the pandemic, without getting drawn into the emotive issues of Ram Mandir, Article 370 and the amended citizenship law that Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of at his rallies. The RJD leader’s big promise of sanctioning 1 million government jobs on his first day in office found popular resonance. His emphasis on economic justice seemed like an attempt to widen his party’s appeal beyond its traditional support groups. The incumbent dispensation, though, may have found favour with relatively pragmatic voters. A vote for the NDA was a vote for continuity, an endorsement of Bihar’s administration, with the bonus of Modi’s backing, given its perceived potential to alter Bihar’s trajectory of development for the better.

Bihar’s new government must confront huge challenges. People may have got roads and electricity, but Biharis aspire for much more. This is the country’s youngest state, with a median age of under 20 in 2011 and projected at just above 28 in 2036. In 2019-20, Bihar’s per capita annual income was just about 47,000, a third of the national average. With figures adjusted for inflation, Bihar is where the rest of India was more than a decade ago. Its unemployment rate was 33.8% in September, which has since fallen with the gradual lifting of covid curbs. Nearly 45% of its workforce is engaged in agriculture, which is characterized by low yields and accounts for only a fifth of its economy. Law and order has clearly improved under Nitish Kumar’s 15 years at the helm, but the state still needs to generate business confidence to attract investment. Regardless of who triumphs, political parties in Bihar need to address its catastrophic deficits in healthcare, education and industrialization. India’s emergence story cannot get far without better lives for the state’s 120 million people.

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