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India: Turning point for democracy?

An election in India's so-called backward state may herald a new politics of accountability.

Bihar India Elections Democracy
An Indian voter waits in line to cast her ballot outside a polling station in Thakurganj village in India's Bihar state on Oct. 21, 2010. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — The odds are good you didn't hear about the state elections this past weekend in Bihar.

But had you been paying attention, what you would have read about happening in this dusty, impoverished outpost in eastern India might just wind up signalling a shift toward better governance for the entire country.

Bihar state, located on the Nepal border and long derided as a basket case, closed the second phase of its six phase state assembly elections Sunday on an unusually optimistic note.

Yes, Maoist rebels succeeded in torching a poll booth and abducting three officials. But the insurgents' routine call for a boycott failed to stop voters. In the first two phases of the election, voter turnout exceeded 50 percent — marking a nearly 10 percent increase in voting from 2005, the last time the so-called backward state held polls.

The reason: Nitish Kumar, the state's reigning chief minister, has rekindled optimism by slowly building a functioning government and squashed fear by jailing notorious, politically connected criminals. His re-election — likely but not guaranteed, when votes are counted on Nov. 24, experts said — could therefore mark a turning point in Indian politics by ending the revolving door of "anti-incumbency" and proving that good governance can trump caste- and creed-based rhetoric.

"This election will be a benchmark election, because it has completely new parameters," said Shaibal Gupta, head of the Asian Development Research Institute, based in Patna, Bihar.

What that means is that a state that has always been ruled by identity politics — with voters choosing candidates based on their caste or religious community — has now begun a substantive debate about development and its economic future.

"Every election is a referendum, but this election assumes a greater character because so many steps have been taken that had never been taken earlier," Gupta said. "We have never had a functioning state, so we had to create new benchmarks."

Bihar was once the seat of the powerful Maurya Empire, which spread Buddhism throughout Asia and as far as the Mediterranean. But for a couple thousand years since then, with a breakneck acceleration over the past 20, it's been steadily marching into ruin.

After the British let feudal landlords run rampant, a series of peasant movements made Bihar instrumental in India's freedom struggle. But once India gained its independence, those movements stagnated, and powerful landlords hamstrung any efforts at land reform until a new political
formation of lower caste herdsmen and laborers raised Lalu Prasad Yadav to the chief minister's chair in 1990.

The victory for the oppressed, far from ushering in a golden age of fairness and prosperity, instead accelerated Bihar's descent into chaos. Open warfare prevailed between the militias of upper caste landlords and lower caste tillers, and Lalu, who ruled virtually without rival for three consecutive terms, despite widespread allegations of corruption, used his power to patronize his caste and install his relatives in positions of power.

By 2004, when he was finally defeated by Kumar, the state was barely functioning — unable to disperse funds for ordinary projects like maintaining roads — and most of the rural hinterland was under control of career criminals. Highway travel was out of the question after dark, and even in the capital, Patna, violent crime ensured that the shops closed and the streets were deserted at 8 o'clock.

Finally elected in 2004 after voters finally grew disgusted with Lalu — a charming Falstaff with a brilliant knack for politics — Kumar started Bihar on the path to a turnaround with a risky gambit. Instead of encouraging his own flunkies to get their own forelegs firmly planted in the government trough, he declared an end to the politics of patronage by ending the "transfer industry" that sold coveted bureaucratic posts to the highest bidder and cracked down on criminals that had long enjoyed political protection.