One of Bihar’s many struggling villages. Image source: Wherever the Need

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the state of development in India is very uneven, and not just along social or economic lines. Even though it has the bulk of India’s population and is considered its historic and cultural heartland, the north generally lags behind the south. Poverty is especially evident in the Ganga Valley, one of the world’s great river valleys, which cuts through northern India from its capital, Dilli, to the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. It’s extremely rich farmland well-irrigated with water and one of the most densely populated parts of the world (8% of all people live there!). Yet it also epitomizes the worst parts of India: caste discrimination, rural destitution, low levels of education, crummy infrastructure and a sense of having ignored the modern world for decades. And nowhere else in the valley is as dire as the state of Bihar.

Bihar map

It wasn’t always like this. Bihar is near the center of the river, meaning it was a focal point for the entire subcontinent. Magadha, one of ancient India’s earliest kingdoms, was located there, and ancient India’s great empires, the Maurya and the Gupta, were based there. The Buddha spent much of his life touring Bihar, and the Bihari city of Bodh Gaya is one of Buddhism’s most important pilgrimage sites. The city of Pataliputra was India’s largest, and one of the world’s most impressive cities. The university of Nalanda attracted scholars from all over Asia and made pioneering research into math and astronomy. The Ganga River and fine roads connected Bihar to the rest of its empire; its rich soil made it bountiful.

But over the course of the Middle Ages Bihar declined. India in general fragmented once more into a collection of insular, mostly hostile states. When empires arose, they didn’t arise in Bihar. The center of gravity in the Ganga Valley shifted westward, to Dilli and nearby cities, where Muslim sultanates were based, and eastward to Bengal, which is even more well-watered and has a coastline. Bihar declined even further in colonial times, when its lack of a coastline or major city cut it off from world trade. Britain mostly left it in the hands of its landlords, the zamindars, who taxed it mercilessly and imposed a strict social hierarchy based on caste.

(A word here on caste: This is an ancient Indian social hierarchy somewhere in between class and ethnicity and based on Hindu tradition. Members of a caste tend to have the same occupations from generation to generation, which does a lot to ensure stability but also calcified Indian society for millennia. The lower castes are also discriminated against and are expected to be subservient to the upper castes. A pseudo-caste of “Untouchables” or Dalits are technically outcastes and were traditionally treated like slaves. It’s a complex and very interesting subject, but I’d need another post to go further into it.)

Independent India didn’t do Bihar any favors either. The government imposed a ‘freight equalization policy’ that subsidized the transport of minerals and steel, which did a lot to spread industrial development across the country… but away from the east, including Bihar, where the minerals mainly are. New Dilli mostly ignored Bihar and gave it the smallest share of funds from the Planning Commission, the government body that until recently allocated money for development projects. The state government in Patna (former Pataliputra) was dominated by upper-caste members of the Indian National Congress, India’s ruling party, which was mostly socialist-oriented and doled out welfare to satisfy the voters.

As a result, Bihar stagnated into a state with a vast, mostly young population but little opportunities in politics, business, academia, or really anywhere else but farming. Most people hovered dangerously close to subsistence level — that is, a spike in food prices would push them to starvation. That’s exactly what happened in 1966, when a famine killed a thousand Biharis. Continuing inflation and crappy schooling led to a students’ revolt in 1974, which soon morphed into a nationwide (but still based in Bihar) protest movement against the failures of independent India led by one of its founding fathers, Jayaprakash Narayan. But India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, reacted by repressing the movement and jailing all of her political opponents.

In more recent years, the politics in Bihar have shifted to focus on caste issues. In 1980, the central government set quotas in universities and the public sector for lower castes and Untouchables. Upper castes in Bihar fiercely resisted the directives, both in politics and on the streets. The resistance turned violent, with street gangs and mobs battling it out in tit-for-tat brawls. In 1990 a government led by a lower-caste party, the Janata Dal (People’s Party), came to power promising to free the oppressed castes (and Muslims, who also suffer discrimination and poverty) from their tormentors.

Instead, things only got worse. Like the governments before him, Bihar’s new regime, led by the charismatic but conniving Lalu Prasad Yadav, was more concerned with plundering the finances and enriching its cronies than developing the state. The result was a time of anarchy and terror referred to as the “Jungle Raj” (raj means regime). British travel writer William Dalrymple paints this era in bleak terms in his classic The Age of Kali: Potholes the size of bomb craters on roads lined with the skeletons of rusting trucks. Patna plunging into darkness regularly; electricity rare anywhere else. Gangs of bandits roaming the countryside, taking advantage of the darkness and poor policing to rob unlucky travelers. Gangs of tough guys slaughtering each other to avenge caste injustices. Gangs of thugs morphing into politicians who took their criminal practices with them, beating up and killing anyone who crossed their paths. One MP claimed that “without one hundred men armed with guns you cannot hope to contest elections in Bihar.” It was a Darwinian scenario: survival of the fittest, where might made right.

Patna’s main industry was making fake drugs and toothpaste. Police became little more than the private armies of gangster-politicians, and oppressed the citizenry as much as they protected them. Lalu, the chief minister, justified all this by claiming that the lower castes were getting their due and paying back the Brahmins (the highest caste) for their arrogance and corruption. He did attract a mass following, especially among his sub-caste (the Yadavs, who have historically been numerous but disadvantaged), and even when he was forced to step down for embezzling animal fodder in 1997, he maneuvered his wife into power instead and continued to govern in her name.

As a result of all this, Bihar’s economy ground to a standstill. Its per capita income was about 45% of India’s in 1993; by 2003, this had shriveled to 25%. The rest of the country (well, most of it, anyway) was going through an economic boom during the ’90s and early ’00s, but Bihar missed out. Exasperated college graduates had no opportunities there, what with the terrible power supply and lack of basic government services. Farmers were increasingly squeezed by its surging population growth (from 64.5 million in 1991 to 83 million in 2001), and had to migrate to other states for work. There Bihar’s foul reputation followed them, and they face frequent discrimination and violence.

It’s a bleak story, and for a while it seemed that Bihar might point the way to a more dangerous, polarized and chaotic India. It even played host to the Naxalite insurgency, one of the world’s most overlooked major conflicts, perpetrated by Communist guerrillas determined to wipe out not just the Brahmin zamindars but the whole government. But there’s hope for Bihar: In 2005, a new government was voted into power headed by a modernizer, Nitish Kumar. While continuing to play caste politics, Nitish has put economic development first and cracked down on corruption and crime. Doctors and teachers have been forced to stay in their assigned villages and infrastructure is being nursed back into health. As a result, Bihar might have turned a corner: it’s grown faster than any other Indian state since he came to power (11% a year).

Modi Nitish

Modi apparently caught Nitish by surprise with this photo, then published it without his permission, ensuring his enduring wrath. Image source: Rediff News

Nitish might be the model for a new kind of Indian politician: from humble origins and with a popular touch (he is from the Kurmi peasant subcaste), but driven by economic growth and investment in human capital rather than exploiting class or caste or religious divides. But he’s been overshadowed by another, similar politician from a state government: Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, a western state with a rich trading background. His time in office saw Gujarat grow at a similar rate, and his populist, lower-caste background won him a national fan following that propelled him to the prime ministership in 2014.

But Nitish is no fan of Modi. He claims that he’s no fan of Modi’s persistent Hindu chauvinism and his tendency to alienate Muslims by remaining silent during anti-Muslim outrages and sponsoring hateful rhetoric from his colleagues. He’s also probably jealous and distrustful of another ambitious politician with a big ego and the head of a party with a national reach (the Bharatiya Janata Party, or Indian People’s Party). As a result, he ejected the BJP from his coalition when it named Modi its leader in 2013 and allied with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (National People’s Party) instead. The head of this party is none other than Lalu, who’s survived his jail stint and still has a big popular following in Bihar.

This matters because in October and November, Bihar had a state election. As India’s third-biggest state (with 110 million people), it wields great influence in national politics and can sway national legislation with its election results (state parliaments in India elect the upper house of the national parliament). Modi is having trouble getting most of his reforms through Parliament since the upper house is under opposition control, so he hoped that winning in Bihar would give the BJP the momentum it needed to push through some laws, which would help it win more elections, which would give it more seats and push through more laws, and so on.

But Modi chose to emphasize religious politics in Bihar. The BJP is basically founded on Hindutva, a form of Indian nationalism based on promoting Hinduism, and Hindutva politics has traditionally played well in the Ganga Valley. This is called India’s “cow belt,” since there are a lot of farmers and a lot of cows, and since cows are sacred to Hindus, calling for additional measures to protect cows from slaughter and vilifying Muslims play well. Meanwhile, Nitish and Lalu focused more on caste politics, since they are both lower-caste and the BJP appeals more to upper castes. They also locked up the Muslim vote for obvious reasons. Both sides promised lots of development and welfare schemes, since these continue to play well in Bihar, again for obvious reasons.

Bihar election

From left to right: Modi, his controversial henchman Amit Shah, Nitish, Lalu, and Rahul Gandhi, Congress’s uninspiring leader. Image source: The Times of India

When the election results were announced on November 8, the Mahagatbandhan (“Grand Wedding Knot”) of Nitish, Lalu and the much-shrunken Indian National Congress were triumphant, taking 42% of the vote vs. 34% for the BJP’s coalition. (The rest went to a panoply of minor parties.) Voters apparently care more for caste politics than “cow politics” in this part of the valley. Although they had voted for Modi last year, by now they’ve grown disenchanted with his hype and grand promises. They also delivered an endorsement of Nitish’s brand of economic development and were presumably more inclined to vote for homegrown Biharis as opposed to baharis (outsiders).

This election could be a watershed moment for India, and has Indian political analysts atwitter. Modi’s reform movement has been stalled so far, with little practical achievements to speak of other than steady economic growth, and some of his fans in India and overseas worry that Bihar’s election could start a trend. None of the other states with elections coming up are particularly well-disposed to the BJP. It also undermines Modi’s claim that voters are willing to overlook Muslim-bashing and religious politics if their livelihoods improve.

As for Bihar, all signs point to continuing improvement there, but it remains one of India’s most pressing problems. It’s still the poorest state, it’s still not particularly safe, and it’s still the kind of place young workers escape from. A per capita income of $550 is only great compared to what it was before Nitish ($250). Lalu is back in power and it remains to be seen whether he will try to pull his old shenanigans again. Caste politics are something that New Dilli and most of India really want to move away from, but they remain a big deal for Biharis. Bihar doesn’t represent a particular ethnic group (it’s Hindustani, which is India’s dominant ethnicity, and then a bunch of sub-ethnicities like Bhojpuri and Maithili); it’s just a spot on the map. That (plus the whole caste thing) means that it doesn’t really have the sort of strong state identity that motivates other states to outshine their competitors.

But Nitish is a visionary leader, and Bihar has a huge young population with aspirations for a better future and increasingly conscious of how poorly their state stacks up against the rest of India. Will that be enough to improve Bihar? We’ll have to wait and see.


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