Bihar: after the “Jungle Raj”
This is what Neelmani, a senior police officer in Bihar, told me in a recent interview.
He said the “Jungle Raj”, which gave the state a reputation for corruption, kidnappings and crime, is coming to an end.
The state’s bad name made me expect the worst. But violent crime such as civilian killings has dropped sharply in the past four years.
When you ask people in the capital, Patna, what they are happiest about now, they often say they can venture out after dark without fear.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar wants to present his leadership in stark contrast to that of his predecessors, Lalu Prasad Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi, who ruled the state for 15 years until 2005.
Prasad handed over the reins to his wife when he was accused in the “Fodder Scam”, a large-scale corruption case.
Her residence is just opposite Chief Minister Kumar’s, and despite the bluster around Kumar, Prasad and his wife may well think they can cross the road again in the future.
Taking a short trip to a village just outside Patna, it is clear Bihar faces an uphill battle.
I wanted to check out how Congress’ flagship National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) had worked.
The villagers complained they were getting ripped off by contractors and threatened with jail.
At a small government office in the area, I could see why. A contractor we talked to was very friendly at first. He gave us plates of delicious grapes and tea.
But when we asked him about NREGA, he clammed up.
His senior came in mid-way through the conversation, took him to one side and, so says a friend of mine who overheard them, muttered something about a short jail stint if he spilled the beans.
We asked where we could meet NREGA labourers. Twice a local came in, heard what we were talking about and offered to help, and twice they were quickly ushered out past a small sign by the door warning against corruption.
We ventured out on our own to find the workers. When we did, they listed ways in which their money disappeared in NREGA.
One trick was simply not to pay them. Another was to get them to work for weeks and then not record it. Yet another was to take their thumbprints and then go collect the money.
The job scheme has faced problems in several states and done well in others. I was left in little doubt in which category Bihar falls.
Nitish Kumar is campaigning on a platform of caste-blind development and communal harmony — a message that may or may not resonate in a state where caste loyalties are still strong.
His party argues that Kumar’s much trumpeted development platform has excluded many of the state’s poorest.
Prasad is now the federal railway minister. He won praise for rescuing the service from near bankruptcy and turning it into a cash cow, and has given lectures to American Ivy League students on the success story.
But some Biharis may wonder why he did not work the same miracles for them.