Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why a development mission dedicated to Bihar makes sense

by Ratnakar Tripathy   

The decision of Nitish Kumar, the Bihar CM to set up a Bihar Vikas Mission [Bihar Development Mission] has several implications, both political and governance related that deserve nation-wide attention. With the Bihar cabinet clearing the move on Monday 25th January, a new developmental dynamics is about to unfold in Bihar after a drift and relative torpor of five years during the second stint of Nitish [2010-2014]. The mission that seems like a fluid and period-bound version of a planning commission aims at fulfilling the election promises made by Nitish which went under the nomenclature ‘Saat Nishchay’, meaning seven resolves. As we all know the fate of electoral promises whether at the centre or the state level has been rather dismal allowing governments to go adrift soon after a victory till the next round of the polls. This is made possible by the vagueness and the broad nature of the promises made. Politicians avoid making clear-cut promises so they can safely steer clear of the answerability and the accountability that it entails. It is thus rather unusual and very welcome move for an Indian politician to base an entire mission on the specific promises made during the election speeches which really amounts the bold willingness to be pinned down to specifics in the coming months and years, 2016-2020 to be precise.
The seven resolves mentioned above include providing electricity to all habitations and villages of the state in the next two years, providing each household with a drinking water pipeline [thus far only a measly 3% are connected], constructing 172,000 toilets to get rid of open defecation, providing class 7 pass students the facility of loan of Rs.4 lakh with an interest subvention of 3%, setting up a venture capital fund of Rs.5,000 crore for young entrepreneurs, and free Wi-Fi facilities in colleges and universities. The seven resolves were made in response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's special package of Rs 1.65 lakh crore including Rs 40,000 crore of previous packages announced during the 2015 elections. This is indeed a tall order for a state like Bihar with economic dead ends facing it wherever you look. But even the worst of sceptics and political enemies will have to admit that if nothing else Nitish has made it possible for them to make very pointed attacks in the days to come if the resolves fail or succeed only in part.
An interesting part of the Development Mission is the institutional setup headed by Nitish’s electoral advisor Prashant Kishor who will work on it directly under the CM and also hold a cabinet rank. Apart from the ministers and the bureaucrats, the setup will also seek regular inputs from around 1,500 policy experts, technical experts and researchers at three stages - to find solutions to problems, to find the resources to implement them, particularly domain experts, and finally to ensure timely execution. The administrative structure of the mission however ensures that the consultants will be guided by the higher ups who will receive inputs from the consultants and no more. The combination of political will, administrative drive and systematic knowledge inputs seems too good to be true. But the fact is it will take Bihar nothing less to move out of its development morass – with weak infrastructure, near nil industrial-entrepreneurial activity combined with the prevalence of small holdings and low productivity in the agro sector, every segment and sector in Bihar needs a massive and well-orchestrated push of the kind that only something like the Bihar Development Mission can give. The critics may argue that such moves are much too heavily statist but where is the choice? This is probably what Nitish meant when he claimed that the Gujarat model does not apply to a backward Bihar, even if one assumes that the so-called Gujarat model suited Gujarat itself.  

Nitish’s heightened political stature in recent times can make one forget that his party has two other allied it depends on – Lalu Prasad’s RJD and the Congress. Coalitions at the centre have their own limitations but a coalition in a state can be crippling. This is why the Mission has much political significance. Once the RJD and the Congress become part of the seven resolves the fear of tug of war and avoidable compromises over policy gets minimized. Prashant Kishor, the man in charge is notably not simply known for his strategic and logistical acumen but also his incredible ability to get along fabulously with both Lalu and the Congress. Remember, Kishor will along with his Bihar assignment also be assisting Punjab’a Amarinder Singh in the forthcoming elections in the state. All this also point towards the wider plans of the Mahagathbandhan [Grand Alliance], however tentative at the national level. 

The plight of Bihar and a majority of the Indian states require solutions that are unique to the region, rarely allowing the so-called developmental models and templates to be applied blindly. Additionally, even within a state the sub-regional variations can be mind boggling! This alone necessitates a federal slant in thinking as the need of the hour. The present regime at the centre if anything is even less sensitive than the earlier UPA regime to such nuances that have the potential of playing a decisive role in regional development. The unsaid aim of the Bihar Development Mission may thus also be to keep Bihar safe from the policy drift and indecision that has increasingly marked the centre for the past year and half and is becoming a matter of worry for a broad range of political hues and area experts.

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