Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s Sushan babu, the poster child of good governance, credited with engineering a governance miracle that delivered rapid growth in Bihar, faces his electorate today a diminished man, with his governance miracle a thing of the past.
The shifting dynamics of political party competition, a potential churn in existing social equations, and Kumar’s political missteps have excited much commentary. Missing in the analysis of his fading political star is any serious engagement with Kumar’s now fading good governance, itself a product of a complex political economy. Embedded here are important lessons in the dynamics of politics and State capacity, and the limits they place on governance reforms. The success of Bihar’s new government (even with Kumar at its helm) will depend on its ability to navigate this political economy.
To understand the emergence (and subsequent stagnation) of Kumar’s governance reforms, it is important to go back to Lalu Prasad and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) years. Prasad’s politics of caste empowerment paid scant attention to governance. In fact, as Jeffery Witsoe has argued, the governance breakdown was by design, part of the political project of lower caste empowerment that sought to challenge the dominance of upper caste bureaucrats in State institutions.
In an insightful paper, former bureaucrat Santosh Mathew and co-authors, offer systematic evidence of how this was achieved. RJD governments carefully avoided appointing upper caste officials, preferring to leave positions vacant if suitable candidates from the Yadav electoral coalition could not be identified. Central funds for implementing government schemes were under-claimed and unspent. For instance, between 1996 and 2006, a mere 30,000 primary school teachers were recruited, despite central government pressure and financing to fill 90,000 sanctioned teacher positions. Power was transferred to local politicians through the chief minister, stripping bureaucrats of significant decision-making authority by deploying complex red tape and encouraging political interference. The result was the creation of new networks of Yadav patronage at the grassroots and an administration stripped of capacity. Both governance and State capacity were collateral damage in the politics of empowerment.
Kumar rode to power in 2005 on the back of a new social alliance and a promise of governance and redistributive development. His unique alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s upper caste supporters and the disparate group of non-dominant lower castes (the extremely backward classes and mahadalits) freed him from the constraints Prasad faced. Witose argues that the alliance with the upper castes enabled him to wrest power back from politicians to bureaucrats with relatively little resistance and aggressively pursue a governance agenda. Kumar, thus, was able to concentrate on recapacitating the administration. Fiscal transfers from the Centre increased. The administration was slowly repopulated, albeit never to full capacity — in key areas of administration Bihar still has very high vacancy rate. This has now become the basis for the RJD’s one million government jobs election promise. In his first seven years in power though, Kumar recruited over 300,000 primary school teachers and strengthened the police force (which contributed to restoring law and order). The results were palpable. In education, for instance, in 2005, Bihar reported among the highest percentage of girls who were out of school. By 2011, the proportion of children out of school was lower than the national average and the gender gap had all but disappeared.
But this strategy of recapacitating administration and engineering an early governance miracle had inherent limitations. Like Prasad, Kumar centralised power within the Chief Minister’s Office, but unlike the RJD, relied heavily on a set of top bureaucrats. His strategy sought to remove politics from governance and free senior bureaucrats from political patronage. But in doing so, it failed to mobilise a political constituency that could challenge patronage networks at the grassroots. Corruption and patronage remained entrenched and schemes like MGNREGA suffered. Crucially, this model by design could not engineer deep structural grassroots administrative reforms, necessary for long-term change.
I witnessed this first-hand, while studying the education reforms in the 2010-2015 phase. The top-down bureaucratic approach successfully managed to expand the primary school network and innovate. The Mukhyamantri cycle yojna to incentivise girls to go to secondary school has now been widely replicated across the country. But when it came to building on these gains — ensuring teacher accountability and improving learning outcomes — the system found itself flailing, despite the CM’s commitment. His model for good governance was not designed for structural change. This is why his third term has been bereft of new ideas and serious change. The governance miracle stagnated.
Crucially, this bureaucrat-led approach undermined Kumar’s ability to mobilise a political constituency around his development model and leverage his early success to widen his political base. The importance of political mobilisation is what the BJP has understood well. Every new scheme, every governance tool is deployed politically. Ironically, this is a model Modi developed after the 2015 Bihar debacle.
In seeking to rid governance of politics, Nitish Kumar has arguably lost his only significant political weapon. The rise and subsequent stagnation of Bihar’s governance model is also a reminder that ultimately the quest for good governance and State capacity is about politics, even if politics is the reason governance in India suffers.
Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal