India’s most notorious state is failing to live up to its reputationONE of the more unlikely case studies offered by Harvard Business School describes the turnaround of Indian Railways under Lalu Prasad Yadav, a shrewd, roguish politician who ruled Bihar, India’s most depressed and unruly state, for 15 years. His predecessor at the railways, Nitish Kumar, now leads Bihar. He may one day draw similar interest from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, for rarely has a failed state escaped political bankruptcy so fast.
With a population bigger than Germany’s, Bihar still suffers from potholed roads, indolent teachers, apathetic officials, insurgent Maoists, devastating floods, shortages of power, skewed landholdings, caste resentments and an income per head that is only 40% of India’s as a whole. And yet, bad as that may sound, Bihar is far better today than it was in November 2005, when Mr Kumar came to power.
Today Bihar has pot-holes, where formerly it didn’t have roads. Businessmen grumble that they cannot raise money to invest in the state, whereas before they spirited their capital out of it. People complain that Mr Kumar’s government has fallen short of its ambitious development plans. But at least it has ambitions. Mr Yadav did not offer development. At best, he promised izzat, or self-respect, to downtrodden castes, who once voted as their landlords demanded, and later enjoyed picking someone their “superiors” could not abide.
How has Mr Kumar pulled off this transformation? He first imposed law and order, restoring the state to its role as night-watchman rather than rogue. He has put several gangsters—the sort of people who in the past became heroes—behind bars. He demanded speedy trials, where formerly defendants could intimidate witnesses and drag out proceedings. He has ensured that convicted criminals no longer get lucrative licences for liquor stores and ration shops, which sell subsidised food and fuel. And just as police reformers in America fixed broken windows, Mr Kumar’s police improved perceptions of safety by forcing Bihar’s many gun-owners to conceal their weapons, rather than brandishing them out of their cars.
People now feel confident enough to buy cars and go out after dark. The economy, always volatile, has grown at double-digit rates, on average, since he took power, partly thanks to funds from Delhi. He built over 2,400km of roads last year. In Bihar’s villages, posters advertising immunisation compete with adverts offering cheap mobile-phone calls.
Thanks. Now what?
The policies Mr Kumar has pursued so far have broad appeal. After the national elections in May 2009, a survey found that 88% of people were at least somewhat satisfied with the state government’s work. His second act will be trickier. He has shied away from land reform, which is both fiendishly complex and deeply unnerving to the upper-caste landowners included in his coalition. And to overcome what one minister describes as a “crisis of implementation”—teachers who don’t teach, nurses who don’t nurse, roads built but not maintained, funds received but not spent—he will have to overcome the most obdurate caste of all: the local bureaucracy.
More than the floods that frequently test Bihar’s embankments, local officials fear the rising expectations of people who no longer meekly accept their lot in life. Their instinct is to contain the waters by discouraging such self-assertion. But it is only by giving people their say, by turning unmet need into a political demand, that the state apparatus will begin to do its job. Mr Kumar must win re-election before the year is out. The biggest risk to him may be the rising expectations of his constituents. But that is also the measure of his success.
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.