What Bihar needs is a targeted attack on specific bottlenecks,not another legal status
Nitish Kumars show of strength demanding special status for Bihar is a politically over-determined gesture. But it also signals a deeper political economy challenge in Bihar. The political story is,in many ways,easily told. The demand for special status is a clever game to send multiple signals. It sends a strong signal that the alliance game for 2014 is very much an open contest,and each party will bargain to the fullest extent compatible with its core interests. Second,within the rank and file of the JD(U),there is considerable pressure to jettison the alliance with the BJP; the shadow of Narendra Modi is,at the moment,still considered a liability. Nitish Kumar is at least prepared to signal the possibility. The third is that Nitish positions himself as a possible leader for a loose non-Congress,non-BJP grouping. This grouping is still something of a pipe dream. But playing on a loose alliance of chief ministers of backward states might create the possibility of some bargaining power. Fourth,Nitish Kumar is still immensely popular in Bihar,but his position is not entirely unassailable. The demand for special status is a way of using a national presence to consolidate his position in Bihar. It is a way of saying that I am in the best position to leverage power for bringing special benefits to Bihar. And finally,there is the more diabolical possibility. Nitish Kumar might have realised that he could be put in a position where he will need to justify his choice of alliances at the national level,possibly even with the BJP. He will need a narrative peg to justify that choice,and the demand for special status gives him that option.
There is a larger politics of the presentation of state identities that should not be ignored. There is now a healthy competition between states. But,often in that competition,some states claim more legitimacy than others. In a way,the focus on the Gujarat model has unwittingly done just that. By the reverse token,it is easy to present Bihar as a liability. Despite the governance record of Nitish Kumar,the cultural representation of Bihar as a state whose burden others have to bear is still strong. Whether the Centre or Bihar is to blame for the states economic condition is a longer debate. Spectacularly misguided policies like freight equalisation contributed to the decimation of states like Bihar. Self-inflicted goals,in turn,compounded an adverse economic climate. But in a way,the demand for special status,couched in the language of a right,is meant to underscore the point that the rest of the country bears some responsibility for Bihar. Nitish Kumar is projecting a narrative of double disadvantage: first,keep Bihar poor,and then blame the poor Biharis for showing up in your cities. The undertow of this cultural politics should not be underestimated.
Many observers have noted the possible tension that a dual messaging of demand for special status generates. On one hand,here is a chief minister underscoring his states failures,and in a paradoxical way wanting to increase its dependence on the Centre. On the other hand,his authority depends on projecting a model of success: a form of inclusive growth that has the potential to fundamentally transform Bihar. The politics of backwardness casts a shadow on the politics of aspiration. But in political terms,this dilemma is more imagined than real. Nitish Kumars potential power will come from only one source: his ability to consolidate his position in Bihar. His Bihar strategy is his national strategy.
But there is also a deeper challenge. Is Nitish Kumar now the prisoner of his own success? Bringing double-digit growth to a state like Bihar was no mean feat. He restored a degree of law-and-order,and got some of the basics right: focus on primary healthcare centres,primary education,maternal mortality,and an ambitious roads programme. Like many successful leaders,he empowered sections of the bureaucracy,insulated them from politics,and generated a certain energy. The results are being seen in a spectacular rise in female enrolment,reduced maternal mortality (although many argue this began under Lalu Prasad),good agriculture growth. There was also an openness to experimentation,and Nitish Kumar himself took the lead in transforming the debate on schemes like cash transfers.
But the challenge is that the transition to Bihars next stage is not entirely clear. Historically,Bihars growth patterns have been quite volatile. Bihars energy crisis is unimaginably severe,the single biggest dampener on its prospects. It is still vulnerable to natural disasters. Nitish Kumars land reform efforts are stuck. But most importantly,there is still no big transition path out of agriculture. Historically,other states have grown in part by creating zones of urban growth. This has proved much harder in Bihar. In most states,the creation of these urban powerhouses has been the result of either success in higher education,or more importantly,the creation of a new alliance between state and crony capital in areas like land,infrastructure and cities. There is a cruel joke that has an element of truth in it: Bihars problem was not too much corruption,it was too little corruption. The pressures of its politics have made it impossible to do the massive urban zoning,land reallocation,spectacular infrastructure that we take for granted in other states. Like many chief ministers,Nitish Kumar has spectacularly mishandled higher education. In short,Bihars growth story,most of which comes from construction,is still very dependent on a perpetual Keynesian stimulus. This got a big boost after the NDAs debt restructuring of the states and the growth in Central government finances. But these low-hanging fruits are now gone. Without additional help,there is a danger that Bihar will be stuck once again. Politics apart,this is a genuine economic challenge.
Of course,getting special status is no panacea. Finance Commission allocations already take poverty into account. Most Centrally sponsored schemes cover poor people equally. Getting more states into the backwardness category can also be self-defeating: more states will share the same pie. What Bihar needs is a targeted attack on specific bottlenecks like energy and mitigation against natural disasters,not another legal status. Nitish Kumars claim that Bihar and India will sink or swim together is correct. But it comes as something of a disappointment that,having opened so many new debates on governance,he is now retreating into a discourse that is more a throwback to the past,more about politics than about solving problems.
The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi