Bihar's Special Status: Development, Democracy & Demonstration

Bihar, in the eastern part of India is a very peculiar state. There are many things that Bihar could have been. With its fertile lands and network of rivers, it could have been a hub of agriculture. With its ancient centres of education and enlightenment, it could have been a hub of education. With its proximity to mineral resources in Jharkhand (previously a part of Bihar), to ports in Kolkata and to international borders (Bihar shares a long border with Nepal), it could have been a hub of industries and trade. But, Bihar is non of these.

Looking at the road ahead for Bihar
Bihar is one of the least developed states of India. Low levels of farm productivity, low levels of education, low levels of human development and high levels of unemployment and migration mar Bihar. Add to this the lack of critical infrastructure, primarily electricity. However, for the last few years Bihar has been hitting the headlines for all the right reasons. Improving infrastructure like roads, increasing farm productivity, new educational institutions have brought Bihar back on the path of development. In the recent years Bihar has seen a rise in (economic) growth rate and improvement in human development. However, one infrastructure provision that lacks and hurts the state big time is electricity. Bihar has one of the lowest generation capacities and per capita electricity consumption in the country. According to the census 2011, Bihar has the lowest percentage of households using electricity as the main source for lighting. The last 6 months that I spent in Bihar gave me a first hand experience of the abysmal electricity situation of the state. During my visit to the border district of West Champaran, the hotel that I stayed in had no electricity connection. They didn't apply for a connection as they didn't want to pay the high access (fixed) costs for abysmally low levels of electricity availability. The solution; they ran big diesel generators 24 hours to power all the modern comforts in the hotel. Electricity seems be the big issue that has been weighing down and could potentially pull down the Bihar government currently currently in its second consecutive term. To be fair Bihar government has been trying to set up new power plants in both the government and private sectors. However, even after several requests it has not been able to convince the central government to allot coal blocks for its planned expansion of the power production infrastructure. This seems a bit unfair considering that Bihar used to be one of the most coal rich states in India until one day all of those reserves were taken away upon the separation of Jharkhand. From then on a combination of lack of vision, bad governance and discord between the state and the central governments further degraded Bihar's electricity infrastructure.

Now, with the impending 2014 Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian Parliament) elections there is a scare that the appalling electricity situation of Bihar (the end of which doesn't seem to be in sight) may further weight down the prospects of the ruling parties of Bihar. Add to this the big bet taken by the Bihar Chief Minister by his big announcement that he would not seek votes in the 2014 elections if he fails to improve the electricity situation of Bihar. Of course along with this the government has already started facing anti incumbency in certain pockets of the state, evident during the recent protests organised against the CM during his recent road show.

Another importent announcement and a potentially game changing one that the Bihar CM made about an year ago was his demand for a special status for Bihar. Special status will mean larger share of central government funds to Bihar, reduced taxes etc. The CM and his political party has been arguing that with its own efforts Bihar (which has been a backward and disadvantaged state for a long time) can only achieve as much. It would need stronger support from the central government to further accelerate its growth rate, incubate industries and the social sector schemes. The CM recently argued with the protesting school teachers (demanding for better salaries) in the state that they can only be paid better if  more money comes to the state, indicating to the flow of finance in case Bihar is granted the special status.

Special status is a very intelligent game that the CM and his party have indulged themselves in. It on the one hand tries to take the weight of non performance in certain sectors like electricity off the state government shoulders and peg the blame on the central government and the political parties part of it. The Special status political formula also tries to unify the support of Biharies fragmented by caste and religion behind the CM and his party. Special status presents to the different sections of Biharies a singular goal (and a singular political party) to work towards. This would hopefully empower the CM's party to contest the 2014 elections alone and win enough seats for them to emerge as the king or king makers. The special status formula also gives room to the CM and his party to align with any combination (if need be) at the centre putting aside notions like religion, caste etc. This idea takes off from the CM's announcement that he would extend his support to any political party (BJP or Congress) that gives Bihar the special status. On the negative side some argue that the demand for special status shows that the Bihar CM lacks faith and conviction on his and Bihar's ability to power development. Also, the special status for Bihar would further make it dependent on external forces namely the central government.

The umbrella of development?
Having said all of that, the Bihar CM and his political party have taken the demand for special status very seriously. He has been on a road show across Bihar for about an year now garnering support for his idea. At the same time he has been in constant conversation with the central government on the issue for the last couple of years. The central government didn't budge until this year's budget, the last one before the 2014 elections. Another indication that the special status issue could potentially make or break alliances. The CM and his political party also threatened the central government with a big road show in Delhi if it did not agree to Bihar's demand for special status. At this point I would like to invoke the father of Indian constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's views towards popular protest. In his view, since constitutional methods were available after the independence, popular protest had lost its place in democracy. I don't agree in principle with this view. Citizens if discontent with their government must not wait unti the next elections. They must make their discontent felt and peaceful protest could be an ideal method to do that. However, what I don't understand is why a part of the governance structure would need to take to popular protest to convince another part of the structure of its views and ideas? Why does the CM of Bihar need to take to a demonstration in Delhi to convey the power of people behind his views and ideas. He is an elected representative, the highest one at that of Bihar. It is a given that the Biharies back his ideas. They have done so by exercising the power of their votes. So, why does the CM need to gather a crowd of Biharies in Delhi to press the weight behind his idea? Are elected governments in India in such a weak position that they need to call the people to the roads every time a new idea emerges? What if every state government starts doing this? I find this baffling. However, an argument is that it could be that the Bihar CM is looking for a bigger role for himself and his party at the national stage and wanted to demonstrate his political capital in the national capital. Big ambitions demand big mobilisations.

In conclusion, I just want to underline the question that has been bothering me. Do development, democracy and demonstration go together in cases where different parts or levels of the governance structure are at loggerheads? 


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