For years, Bihar languished at the bottom of almost every measure of development, from literacy rates to GDP. Author William Dalrymple described it as “the most ungovernable and anarchic state in India”, even though it is blessed with ample coal and iron deposits and large tracts of arable land. The problem was caused by a disastrous combination of virulent inter-caste conflict and criminal misgovernance.
After Indian Independence, Bihar was ruled by a mafia of high-caste landowners, with the lower castes – who together with the dalits and tribal people make up more than seventy percent of the state’s population – marginalized to the point of persecution. All that seemed set to change in 1991 when a rabble-rouser from a lowly caste of buffalo milkers, Lalu Prasad Yadav, united the “backward castes”, the Muslims and the dalits under a banner of social justice, winning that year’s state election by a landslide. In power, Lalu delighted with his common touch; he spontaneously unclogged traffic congestion in Patna by walking the streets with a megaphone and filled the grounds of his official residence with buffalo.
Unfortunately Lalu proved little better than his predecessors. His cabinet of caste brethren included men wanted for murder and kidnapping, and violence remained the main tool of political persuasion – as one election candidate said: “Without one hundred men with guns you cannot contest an election in Bihar.” Much of the state degenerated into virtual civil war as the upper castes, lower castes, Maoist (Naxalite) guerrillas, police and private armies clashed violently.
Lalu’s career appeared to be over in 1997, when he was imprisoned for a short spell for embezzling billions of rupees. He responded by getting his illiterate wife Rabri Devi proclaimed chief minister. Even though his RJD party was toppled in the 2005 state elections, Lalu went on to serve as minister for railways from 2004 to 2009.
At state level, however, things changed. In 2005 a Janata Dal (U)–BJP coalition under Lalu’s chief opponent Nitish Kumar took power, and the situation began to improve, with less obvious domination by organized crime.
Nitish held power for ten years, during which things did improve in the state (literacy went up and unemployment down, for example), with Lalu his main opponent. But in the 2014 Lok Sabha election the BJP swept the board and it looked like the 2015 state elections would herald the end of Nitish’s rule. He subsequently joined together with Lalu and the local Congress Party, and divvied up the state assembly seats in an anti-BJP block, so that each candidate had a straight run against the BJP. Thus united, Nitish and Lalu swept jointly into power, giving the BJP its first major electoral setback since the 2014 general election, and beginning a new chapter in Bihar’s chequered political history.