India's most notorious state is failing to live up to its reputation
ONE of the more unlikely case studies offered by Harvard Business School
describes the turnaround of Indian Railways under Lalu Prasad Yadav, a
shrewd, roguish politician who ruled Bihar, India's most depressed and
unruly state, for 15 years. His predecessor at the railways, Nitish Kumar,
now leads Bihar. He may one day draw similar interest from Harvard's
Kennedy School of Government, for rarely has a failed state escaped
political bankruptcy so fast. With a population bigger than Germany's, Bihar
still suffers from potholed roads, indolent teachers, apathetic officials, insurgent Maoists,
devastating floods, shortages of power, skewed landholdings, caste resentments and an income per head that is only 40% of India's as a whole. And yet, bad as that may sound, Bihar is far better today than it was in November 2005, when
Mr Kumar came to power. Today Bihar has potholes,
where formerly it didn't have roads.
Businessmen grumble that they cannot raise money to invest in the state,
whereas before they spirited their capital out of it. People complain that Mr
Kumar's government has fallen short of its ambitious development plans.
But at least it has ambitions. Mr Yadav did not offer development. At best,
he promised selfrespect, to downtrodden castes, who once voted as their
landlords demanded, and later enjoyed picking someone their "superiors"
could not abide.
How has Mr Kumar pulled off this transformation? He first imposed law and
order, restoring the state to its role as nightwatchman
rather than rogue.
He has put several gangsters—the sort of people who in the past became
heroes—behind bars. He demanded speedy trials, where formerly
defendants could intimidate witnesses and drag out proceedings.
He has ensured that convicted criminals no longer get lucrative licences for
liquor stores and ration shops, which sell subsidised food and fuel. And
just as police reformers in America fixed broken windows, Mr Kumar's
police improved perceptions of safety by forcing Bihar's many gunowners
to conceal their weapons, rather than brandishing them out of their cars.
People now feel confident enough to buy cars and go out after dark. The
economy, always volatile, has grown at doubledigit
rates, on average,
since he took power, partly thanks to funds from Delhi.
The policies Mr Kumar has pursued so far have broad appeal. After the
national elections in May 2009, a survey found that 88% of people were at
least somewhat satisfied with the state government's work. His second act
will be trickier. He has shied away from land reform, which is both
fiendishly complex and deeply unnerving to the uppercaste
included in his coalition. And to overcome what one minister describes as a
"crisis of implementation" teachers who don't teach, nurses who don't
nurse, roads built but not maintained, funds received but not spent—he
will have to overcome the most obdurate caste of all: the local
More than the floods that frequently test Bihar's embankments, local
officials fear the rising expectations of people who no longer meekly accept
their lot in life. Their instinct is to contain the waters by discouraging such
But it is only by giving people their say, by turning unmet
need into a political demand, that the state apparatus will begin to do its
job. The biggest risk to Mr. Kumar may be the rising expectations of his
constituents. But that is also the measure of his success.