If anyone had any doubt about the Indian electorate’s ability to turn its back on corrupt non-performing politicians and vote decisively for development and good governance, yesterday’s overwhelming state assembly election result in Bihar should dispel them.
A coalition led by chief minister Nitish Kumar, 59, and his regional Janata Dal (United) party swept the polls with 206 out of 243 seats, routing both the Rashtriya Janata Dal party led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, an earlier highly corrupt folk hero, and the Congress Party, led in the Bihar election campaign by Rahul Gandhi, who is tipped as a soon-to-be prime minister.
It was a day when the financial markets were rocked by the arrest of eight top public sector banking and housing finance executives for a real estate loans scam, the hugely corrupt state chief minister of Karnataka refused to resign, and (probably thousands of) people listened to audio recordings on the internet linking an on-going telecom spectrum scam to top businessmen, journalists and politicians.
For Nitish Kumar, a socialist and former railways minister, to win so overwhelmingly on such a depressing day showed that there are at least some public figures in India whose primary aim is to do the job they were elected to do, rather than to liaise with big business and others to generate personal wealth.
Since he became chief minister in 2005, Mr Kumar has worked on a development agenda, improving economic growth, health services, education, infrastructure, governance, and law and order. This followed 15 years of mis-rule by Lalu Yadav, who thought that all he needed to do was to raise the image and self-confidence of his backward Yadav caste, while lining his own and his family’s pockets with millions of illicit dollars.
Starting from such a low base of neglect, it has been relatively easy for Mr Kumar to show statistical progress, but his job will be harder over the next five years because of raised expectations in a state that is still desperately poor and under-developed. His success also marks him as a possible prime minister of a future coalition government, but Bihar must hope he remains focussed on the state’s problems.
He has already managed to reverse comparisons between Bihar, which used to be regarded as one of India’s worst basket-cases, with Karnataka, which used to be respected because of the huge software and information technology successes in its capital of Bangalore (Bengaluru), led by companies such as Infosys and Wipro.
Karnataka political basket case
Now it is Karnataka that is a political basket case, hit by successive self-serving and corrupt administrations. The current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government, led by chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, has been a disaster, dragged down by highly publicised illegal mining deals and land scams linking politicians and businessmen, and by Yeddyurappa’s nepotism on land deals and other issues. Yeddyurappa rarely bothers to deny such allegations, and was quoted a few days ago saying that he is only behaving (corruptly) as other chief ministers have in the past.
This is the BJP’s first state government in a southern state, so is specially important for the image of a party that used to pride itself on not being corrupt. The national leadership has been trying to oust Yeddyurappa, but several of the leaders have close links with key players in the state and the party now seems to have given up. The wisdom of that decision will be tested in coming local polls.
Elsewhere in the country, evidence of corruption and telecom policy fixing has been pouring into the newspapers, television programmes and the internet, generated by the forced resignation of Andimuthu Raja, the communications minister, that I wrote about last week over a multi-billion dollar scam that has brought parliament’s proceedings to a halt for ten days.
A public relations consultant and corporate consultant (government policy fixer) called Niira Radia (right), who is a close adviser to the heads of India’s two biggest groups, Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani, lobbied on behalf of these and other clients with Raja.
Tapes of her conversations have been leaked for some time and are now easily accessible on Outlook news weekly’s website, where her conversations with Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, top journalists, and television anchors and others on cabinet-fixing and telecom rivalries can be read and heard. Mr Tata’s involvement in this collection of names has caused most surprise.
Meanwhile Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party and India’s coalition government, has begun to speak up against corruption (coincidentally, no doubt) just a few days after I commented last week on her silence. Predictably she is trying to draw a distinction between Congress’s and the BJP’s records to try to avoid a swing against her party in future elections. On a broader front, she noted that “graft and greed” was increasing and was putting at risk “the principles on which independent India was founded”. She called for “greater probity” and transparency in government.
There is of course no hope of stopping corruption in India any more than in any other country. As Geoffrey Goodman, a veteran British journalist, pointed out in a comment on this blog last week, it is “a malaise of instant gratification, greed and the collapse of belief in moral values……the price we are paying for the global revolution in technology and the huge movement of peoples across the globe with massive social, economic and cultural change”.
In some countries, bribes speed up economic activity, but in India they are more about creating wealth for politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who buy and sell patronage, favours and gifts with little care for any end result apart from personal power and gain.
That is the trend that Nitish Kumar has broken in the formerly sick state of Bihar. His success and victory is a rare example of good governance. Maybe the IT companies of Bangalore should move to Bihar, showing up the failures of Karnataka’s politicians and rewarding a state that is making positive progress.