A new model of development

Print edition : November 13, 2015

Schoolgirls participate in a cycle rally as part of an awareness campaign on voting in Patna on September 18. Between 2001 and 2011, the literacy rate in Bihar increased by 16.8 percentage points and female literacy by 20 percentage points. Photo: PTI

Nitish Kumar and RJD chief Lalu Prasad at the Grand Alliance’s “Swabhiman” rally in Gandhi Maidan in Patna on September 30. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar.

Bihar’s growth is demonstratively more inclusive, with the State recording substantial gains in education, health and other social indicators.

THE political debate on development has conventionally revolved around three prominent themes. One, social justice, as reflected in the social mobility and social respect gained by communities; two, socio-economic empowerment, as reflected in terms of economic and social indices; and three, infrastructure development, as reflected in general categories of building institutions and infrastructure.

These themes have dominated the discourse either jointly or individually at different junctures. However, social justice and related political and administrative manoeuvres have been, more often than not, the primary component of this debate. Successive elections have been an integral part of this discourse.

Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad’s statement about a “backward-forward” divide in the current Assembly elections in Bihar against the backdrop of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on revisiting the issue of positive discrimination needs to be seen from this perspective. On the other side, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) co-option of different subaltern castes, contrary to its track record, is also an indication of the diversity of the development debate. The compulsion of the “social justice” movement in the State has ensured that a number of subaltern caste leaders such as Nand Kishore Yadav, Prem Kumar and Hukumdev Narayan Yadav have been pitchforked into the BJP leadership. Even the brand of Narendra Modi was not built around “development” alone; he was projected deliberately as a leader from a lower backward caste.

This underscores the realisation in the BJP that the Brahmin-centric leadership of the party has outlived its utility in electoral battles. Both in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the co-option of different castes was done with clinical precision by BJP president Amit Shah.

Even the antecedent of Samrat Asoka, the iconic emperor of ancient India, was traced to the Kushwaha caste, despite the fact that its historicity has not been established. Recently, a stamp in his honour was issued by the BJP government and the legendary king was celebrated demonstratively in Patna.

In the current Assembly election, the BJP has given the party ticket to 30 Yadavs, apart from candidates belonging to other subaltern castes. Against this backdrop, it is to be seen whether Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad are able to steal once again the “social justice” thunder in the Assembly elections and can give a spin to the “forward-backward” divide. The electorate of Bihar will find it difficult to choose between three electoral fronts, each posing as the legitimate inheritor of the “social justice” movement, as all the three fronts have an array of subaltern leaders of consequence. One may, however, note that even though subaltern leaders are brought into the ambit of the BJP, the core and critical decision-making authority within the party rests with the upper castes. Yet, the BJP is absolved of the charge of practising caste-centric politics. It is indeed surprising that any upper-caste-centric coalition, either by the Congress in earlier years or by the BJP now, is not considered as a caste-centred coalition. The same act by a coalition of marginal and subaltern castes, led by Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, is invariably considered a caste-centred coalition.

To be truthful, caste has never been absent in electoral battles in India in the post-Independence period. Earlier, the electoral suzerainty of the traditional elite, the Indian National Congress, oscillated around the strong combination of “Brahmins-Dalits-Muslims”. This grass-roots caste coalition was necessary for electoral success in spite of the halo of the independence struggle that Jawaharlal Nehru carried. The loss that the Indian National Congress suffered after the defection of Jagjivan Ram in 1977 on the grounds of protecting Dalit interests could not be recouped even after the trekking of Indira Gandhi to Belchi in the wake of the massacre of Dalits. When the fractured electoral base of the Congress was found to be insufficient for winning elections, Rajputs were added to the trinity. This electoral strategy was choreographed by Nehru’s grandson Sanjay Gandhi in the 1980 parliamentary elections. In the Congress, Sitaram Kesri and Arjun Singh did attempt subaltern co-option. The former advocated implementation of the Mandal Commission Report and the latter wanted to install Subhas Yadav as his successor when he relinquished the office of the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. Both these attempts were torpedoed by the Congress high command.

Thus, caste has always played a decisive role in Indian elections, but in Bihar the practice of caste politics has been brazen. Even though the State has seen radical movements, it did not have any multi-caste social movement of consequence. In southern and western India, some multi-caste movements got catapulted to power on the basis of regional identity and economic development, thereby relegating the identity of caste to the background. In Bihar, however, there are essentially two identities—caste and national; there is no “Bihari” subnational identity. However, as long as the traditional elite enjoyed electoral hegemony, their assiduously built caste arithmetic was not referred to with contempt. But once a new social group, which was electorally marginal earlier, emerged in the early 1990s riding the agenda of social justice and upsetting the existing national political situation, it was immediately dubbed as a caste conclave. This is a clear case of double standards.

Social justice agenda

The contribution of Lalu Prasad to the social justice agenda is substantial, but he should not be given disproportionate credit for the social justice cataclysm in Bihar. The democratisation of Bihar society, especially its electoral variant, has a long history spanning nearly a century. Even though Bihar was the initial theatre of Mahatma Gandhi’s movement and there were several Bihar leaders who came to the fore in the freedom struggle, it was the peasant movement of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati that gave an authentic democratic spin to Bihar society for the first time.

Both democracy and class resonated in that peasant movement, which was built around the agenda of dismantling the Permanent Settlement crafted by Lord Cornwallis, way back in 1793. Sahajanand Saraswati’s initial concern for the Bhumihar tenants, the social group that he belonged to, later extended to tenants from other social backgrounds, which later led to the formation of the Kisan Sabha and the communist and socialist movements. Thanks to the peculiarity of the land tenurial system in Bihar, it was the “class” question that emerged stronger than the “social” question.

A powerful section of the backward castes—Koeri, Kurmi and Yadav—had to face the onslaught of social injustice as well. To fight that social deprivation, they started the “Triveni Sangh” for social sustenance way back in the early 1930s. The current musical chair of Bihar chief ministership is essentially oscillating around them, a social coalition which was crafted almost 90 years ago.

Lalu Prasad, apart from being the first major beneficiary of the social justice movement, did consolidate it by building the edifice of a secular agenda in Bihar. In the process, a unique coalition of Yadavs and Muslims, who were plagued by antagonistic contradictions earlier, emerged. Bihar has witnessed broad communal peace since then, after a conflagration in Bhagalpur.

Even when Nitish Kumar ascended the throne of Bihar, with the BJP as his ally, the tradition of communal peace continued. While Lalu Prasad used his popular connect, Nitish Kumar used the instrument of the state for social tranquillity. The social justice constituency is much stronger now, and there is no doubt that in the past 25 years, Bihar has undergone a fundamental change when it comes to giving voice to the people. The feudal structure, even though not dismantled, has been weakened substantially in the State.

In some sense, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar have complemented each other in promoting social justice. While Lalu Prasad gave voice to subaltern sections, Nitish Kumar brought them to the centre stage of governance by “positive discrimination” in panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). By reserving 50 per cent of the seats for women, 20 per cent for lower backward castes (Annexure-I) and 10 per cent for Dalits, he broke the hold of feudal forces on the lower power centres, a task that even Lalu Prasad could not complete during his stint. If the social justice base could not expand or get consolidated in spite of the efforts of Lalu Prasad first and Nitish Kumar later, it was because the substantive step of land reform could not be taken up in Bihar. No State in India has economically leapfrogged without undergoing agrarian reform.

Apart from the southern and western States, including Punjab, Uttar Pradesh also underwent comprehensive land reform under the leadership of Charan Singh. The basic foundation of development in developed States is built around the structure of updated land records, consolidation of landholding, recording the rights of the sharecropper, and distribution of surplus land. Without ensuring these basic agrarian reforms, a State cannot evolve an authentic growth strategy. The recommendations of the D. Bandyopadhyay Committee on Land Reform, constituted by Nitish Kumar himself, should have been implemented. Besides land reform not being attempted, even the Amir Das Commission, constituted after the Miapur massacre to unravel the atrocities of the Ranvir Sena on the subaltern, was disbanded.

Positive discrimination

During Nitish Kumar’s tenure, the State could not penalise those people who were involved in the atrocities. During the 10-year tenure of Nitish Kumar, when no less than 90,000 people were convicted, most of those convicted for their role in the massacres (Laxmanpur Bathe, Bathani Tola, Sanker Bigha, and so on) were released by the higher court. Except for a few who were from the upper castes, most of the persons who were killed in social or agrarian violence were from subaltern castes.

The positive discrimination in PRIs was a historic step for the subaltern, especially for the lower backward castes and Dalits, but it could lead to an authentic economic empowerment only if it was backed by land reform, ushering in an economic development from below. In any case, the tokenism of a role in PRI governance or grant of seats for parliamentary or Assembly elections cannot go far in retaining the confidence and support of the 114 lower backward (Annexure-I) castes and myriad Dalit castes. PRI empowerment has its limits; it cannot be a substitute for inclusive growth and economic empowerment, which land reform could have provided.

Yet another reason for the social justice movement becoming increasingly weaker is the tendency of its leaders to get involved in electoral populism instead of leading the crusade through ideological strengthening. This electoral populism revolves around the role of political parties as the “provider” and not as an “enabler” of the people. Consider, for example, the recent decision of Mukesh Sahni, the self-styled leader of the Nishad community, switching from the Mahagatbandhan (Grand Alliance) to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on the grounds that the former had granted fewer seats to Nishads. This was in spite of the fact that the Janata Dal (United) government had recently granted the Nishad community Scheduled Tribe status. The Nishad community, after being granted a favour by the JD(U), moved to the NDA as the latter granted it more favours. Such incidences of competitive populism are bound to happen when political parties play the role of the provider, not that of an enabler.

Apart from the failure to wage ideological struggles, the image of the leaders of social justice movements has also suffered immensely because of family or kinship-based political patronage within the party. Unlike the leaders of the freedom movement or the Left parties, they lack moral authority, a necessary precondition for leading a genuine social or political struggle.

Bihar versus Gujarat

Even with limited success, Bihar can be calibrated with Gujarat, the “poster” State for development. Ironically, the electoral stability of any Chief Minister or a political party over a period or even economic development may not be the guarantee for social tranquillity. An obvious example is Hardik Patel’s movement in Gujarat on behalf of the Patidar community, one of the most prosperous communities, indicating the limitations of a capital-intensive growth strategy which is far from being inclusive. Even though Bihar has witnessed some development only in the past 10 years, its track record in terms of inclusion is much better.

After liberalisation and the opening up of the protected market of India, the national growth rate leapfrogged, almost nearing double digits. But one of the tragic consequences of this growth has been the increasing duality of the economy. During the era of the “Hindu rate” of growth, the duality between the rural and urban areas was there, but in the wake of liberalisation, that duality got widened to an alarming level. In the process, at one end, poverty and underdevelopment exacerbated in some States; at the other end, some States recorded massive developmental benchmarks. The trajectories of the Bihar and Gujarat models of development are indeed the reflections of the widening duality of the Indian economy.

The two development trajectories, one in the landlocked state of Bihar and the other in a seafront State of Gujarat, need to be evaluated against the backdrop of the economic evolution of the two regions. If one makes a clinical dissection of the two models, Gujarat’s achievements can hardly be characterised as a “model”. Narendra Modi’s achievement in Gujarat is actually a continuation of a momentous policy that has been in place for about two centuries. Admittedly, Gujarat is the most happening State and its growth model is being advertised both nationally and internationally; some people believe that the “Gujaratisation of India” is the only way out for our nation. But, quite surprisingly, these people also claim that the development in Gujarat is of recent origin, primarily because of the initiatives of one individual. This understanding has serious flaws. It ignores the historical and societal construct of Gujarat. Over and above, institutional factors ultimately determine the societal understanding and priorities of a State. Unlike the “Permanent Settlement” States, the “Ryotwari” States, including Gujarat, historically had good governance.

So, it was no accident that Gujarat produced generations of distinguished public functionaries who created new developmental benchmarks. Consequently, entrepreneurship flourished because of huge positive externalities. There have been several instances of first-generation entrepreneurs, like Dhirubhai Ambani, Gautam Adani and Karsanbhai Patel (Nirma), reaching the pinnacle in no time. Even the Anand experience of milk cooperative created a global benchmark. The princely States also played a decisive role in this matter. The princely State of Baroda (Vadodara) created a record in matters of administrative and developmental innovation. But all these institutional advantages are a historical phenomenon, not a recent trend. Way back in 1984, when Madhavsinh Solanki was Chief Minister, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) brought out a table of 100 districts with an investment of more than Rs.4,000 crore. Gujarat had the highest number of districts (nearly 25) on this list. In Bharuch district alone, the investment was more than the total investment in the rest of the country.

In fact, Narendra Modi’s was a continuation of the trend of financial and industrial accumulation in Gujarat; he was not its initiator. Finally, it is to be noted that notwithstanding the economic growth of the State, which makes it the third richest one in India, social development in Gujarat lags behind. In terms of sector indicators, like literacy, life expectancy at birth, infant mortality, poverty ratio, multidimensional poverty index, hunger index and human development index, Gujarat ranks very low. Against this backdrop, Hardik Patel’s movement is a wholly understandable phenomenon.

In contrast, Nitish’s strategy of resurrection of Bihar can certainly be seen as a “model”. In Bihar, Nitish did not inherit any benchmark for a Chief Minister who can be emulated. Unlike Narendra Modi with a strong organisational foundation of the BJP, Nitish Kumar had many political agendas to pursue. He also had to build the massive state structure, energise the public system and kick-start a growth process. Even though he could not accomplish all, Bihar did make a decisive start, changing the direction of its development discourse.

One thing that should be borne in mind is that Bihar subsidised the entire post-Independence industrialisation of the country by allowing its mineral resources to be taken outside through the “freight equalisation” policy. Bihar’s growth is also demonstratively more inclusive, with the State recording substantial gains in education, health and other social indicators. Between 2001 and 2011, the literacy rate increased by 16.8 percentage points and female literacy by 20 percentage points. There has been a dramatic decline in the infant mortality rate, which now equals the national average.

That indeed makes Nitish’s strategy a new model of development. In any case, the future models of growth will be essentially human development-centric. In the new social justice electoral alignment with Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar can lead the churning of agrarian reform from the front, ignoring electoral populism. This path of development, in which growth and equity command equal attention, will create a social justice benchmark in the country.

Shaibal Gupta is Member-Secretary, Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), Patna.