The Bihar assembly election inaugurates a new phase in the state’s politics and development. It’s a verdict for change — in the ways political parties have, so far, addressed aspirations of the state’s electorate, especially the youth who made themselves heard throughout this closely fought campaign. It is important that the new government reads the mandate right, and learns the right lessons from it, so that the gains of recent years are not reversed and so that the Bihar story steps forward into the next phase.
State politics in the last three decades has been shaped by the forces unleashed by the Mandal revolution in the 1990s. The first half of this period was dominated by Lalu Prasad, who presided over the transfer of political power from upper castes to the backward castes, and to some extent, enabled minorities and backward castes to partake of public goods and services. Nitish Kumar carried forward the political transformation that Lalu had initiated, and focussed on areas that the RJD government had neglected and ignored — in his first term, he initiated a turnaround by restoring law and order and building physical infrastructure. Nitish was successful both in maintaining social peace in a state that had witnessed recurrent caste violence, and in expanding the infrastructure of governance and development.
He also extended the framework of social justice politics to empower women by extending reservation to them in local bodies and government jobs, besides introducing several measures to improve education among girls. The new government needs to build on these important gains. It must also, while protecting the strides made in social justice, address questions of economic justice.
The election campaign brought to the fore two issues that engage the youth, who form nearly a quarter of the state’s electorate — the absence of quality education and jobs.
Even as Bihar under Nitish Kumar has shown remarkable improvement in attendance in government schools, learning outcomes have declined. The government needs to relook at the system of contract teachers and appoint qualified staff to raise standards. Poor schooling may also be a reason for low enrolment in higher education — according to the All India Higher Education Survey (AISHE), Bihar’s Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) stands at 13.6 per cent, the lowest in the country. Only 13 in every hundred in the 18 to 23 years age group pursue higher education — the national average is 26.3 per cent. Clearly, the issues of “padhai (education), kamai (earning), sinchai (irrigation), dawai (medicine)” — highlighted in the campaign — have to be the priorities of the new government. Jobs will follow.
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