Effective public service delivery through innovative governance knowledge exchange
Effective public service delivery through innovative governance knowledge exchange
Development dynamics and electoral politics: From the grassroots on Nitish Kumar’s landslide victory
Manisha Priyam takes a closer look at the correlation between ‘chunaav’ and ‘vikaas’; a newfound phenomenon in Bihar's political milieu. She unfolds stories of change and development, as experienced by women in the most marginalised sect

Not just the Nitish Kumar-led coalition, but almost all political parties in the recently-concluded elections pitched their positions around the question of “vikaas.” Nitish Kumar said he was putting his achievements — building roads, restoring law and order, incentivising girls’ education through free uniforms and bicycles — to the people for a referendum; but even for the Lalu-Paswan combine, taking on the incumbent was no longer simply in the linguistic idiom of “izzat” and “samajik nyaya”. Nitish’s vikaas claims were also challenged.

And now the results are in, it appears that vikaas may have made a difference. How? Recent electorial history in poorer Indian states, and political economy research worldwide, hardly shows a clear positive correlation between chunaav and vikaas. Theory, too, is pessimistic about the chances of political leaders being able to pursue a development agenda and ensure electoral victory. Mancur Olson famously argued that development creates diffuse gains spread over a wide population; but winning elections requires vote blocs, formed when the benefits are concentrated on a few particular groups — in India, caste groups with some strength to act. Political leaders who calculate benefits and losses would therefore prefer populism to development. So what has happened, in terms of real developments in Bihar, that this pessimistic relationship stands challenged, that an election has been won on a development agenda?

For the answers, look to the margin, especially to women at the bottom end of socio-economic hierarchies. Women turned out overwhelmingly to vote, a clear break from the past. What was happening?

Purnia is one of Bihar’s most backward districts, one with a large Muslim population, and wrecked apart periodically by the fury of floods. While Bihar’s average literacy rate in 2001 was 47 per cent, Purnia’s was even lower at 35 per cent. Travel in to Baysi, one of the district’s more deprived blocks, and you’ll discover the literacy rate amongst women is an abysmal 16 per cent! Women here take some time to open up and talk freely. But when they do, they say that flood relief was distributed honestly. They say there are improvements in primary education, with teachers in what were vacant schools, albeit of a poor quality. They say mid-day meals are given regularly.

A Dalit follows me and adds that Nitish and adhikaris from Patna listen to them, even though the block padadhikari still chase them away. Muslim women say they do not fear that their girls riding cycles to school will lead to moral depravity, or harm their social fabric. “Hamaare saath jo hua so hua, ab inki zindagi acchi beete”, say women of all caste groups. “Baysi mein vote kaam ke aadhar par jaayega.”

But it is in Bhojpuri-speaking areas of central Bihar, while talking to women from caste groups most opposed to Nitish’s rule, that the most critical insights come into focus. Even those who do not vote for Nitish confirm that he has done “vikaas ka kaam”. Women in a Yadav toli in Sandesh Assembly constituency confirm having voted for Lalu — but under the decision of “ghar ke bade”, the men who head the household. Discussions return inexorably to the issue of development. A lot has been done by Nitish, they say, for schools: regular teachers, meals, and cycles. Their narrative again confirms effective delivery of both services and incentives for schooling. Their girls like to go to school; the young boys still want to stay out and watch the “naach and disco gaana”, whereas the girls are serious. Families need to push their children into being more serious, says Rajo Devi.

The young boys listening take me proudly to their main road, saying “yeh Nitish banwaaya hai.” Women point to unusual benefits from roads: safety has increased, for one, as there is traffic even late in the evening. Collectively, when the daylight dims, the women go to relieve themselves at the edges of the main road, as there are no toilets they can use.

In Arrah zila, in a Paswan toli before we hit the town, women are angry at having been excluded from the list of Mahadalits. Probed further, though, they confirm that their girls have also got cycles which they ride even on main roads. Young Puja is disappointed at having been married off early. That meant her schooling ended — but, even more than that, her chance of getting a cycle vanished. As we talk, a group of girls in uniforms whizz past.

This is the story of change viewed from the eyes of those who are at the margins of the state and development. Some small things have reached many. Some public works, for once, are viewed not as a haven for corruption and profiteering by contractors, but both as a public and private good. It is a story of hope amidst extreme scarcity which even the worst detractors of the regime, even those who do not vote for Nitish, confirm. It is a story where the priority of a human agenda overwhelmed electoral concerns.

Source: The Indian Express