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Good Governance Matters, In India

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There is a new reason to feel vindicated, and hopeful, about India.

Last month the Indian state of Bihar - situated to the north of the country with a population of 83 million people (more than a quarter of the United States population) - re-elected a successful political alliance led by an outstanding Chief Minister. Bringing the alliance back to power through an unprecedented 206 of the 243 seats in the State Assembly, the voters of Bihar issued a resounding affirmation for good governance.

Bihar is significant not only because of the population and corresponding political impact on the Central Government. It is significant in terms of symbolic value to the rest of the country. For several decades Bihar has been India's darkest state, the black hole of governance, the most cited example for crumbling infrastructure, poor economic development, regressive social conditions, institutionalized corruption and criminalized political elites. Decades of unscrupulous politics had pitted communities, castes and sub-castes against each other. In short, Bihar was India's state of despair - one that fit the Western stereotype of a "Third World" society, dominated by primitive loyalties and doomed to squander its resources on infighting.

But it took one strong leader with vision to change that perception. When Nitish Kumar assumed the post of Chief Minister in 2005, he positioned his government as a unifying force, in stark contrast to predecessors and contemporaries who were appealing to constituencies on the basis of community, caste and sub-caste. He then forged a strong development-oriented agenda aimed at maximizing economic and social gains for the broadest segments of population. In the words of the manifesto - sadak, shiksha, suraksha (roads, education, security), commonsensical goals for a land splintered by hundreds of rivers and streams, for a population with a shocking 47% literacy rate and for a citizenry that had been thoroughly oppressed by mafia goons.

In the past five years of his governance Bihar has added 10,000 kilometers of road and built 2,100 bridges - more than what was achieved in the previous four decades of government. A positive spinoff from these and other development works was the creation of 4.2 million jobs in 2009-10 and a growth rate averaging 11.4% over the span of the new government.

To move forwards on education, more than 100,000 teachers were hired, 400,000 bicycles distributed to female students in rural Bihar to increase access to school (where female literacy is an abysmal 29.6%) and hundreds of new schools established.

But the boldest achievement was in crime control - the determination shown in tackling the criminal-politician nexus, and in breathing new life into a defunct criminal judicial system. In five years, the Nitish Kumar government ensured the conviction of more than 50,000 criminals by setting up fast-track courts to complete mass prosecutions in record time. Discerning the right officers for each post, and letting them do their jobs without undue interference, was all it took. For those of us who have worked at the cutting edge of police management in India, this is the heart of the matter.

Police managers in India are recruited through extremely competitive selection procedures, trained rigorously in professional skills and knowledge, and then, more often than not, expected to work under the dictates of an increasingly criminalized executive. When criminals control the Home Departments (Ministries of State), the mafia calls the shots through political puppets and the judicial system takes years to begin prosecution, there is very little justice the citizen can expect.

By acknowledging this reality, having the courage to tackle the criminal-political nexus, and then systematically addressing failures in the judicial system, the Nitish Kumar government has measured up to the greatest challenge of governance. And by re-electing this government, the voters of Bihar have demonstrated that it is good governance, and not primitive loyalties, that matter, even in a developing country like India.

For Western analysts and academics who are often predisposed to the ills of long-distance vision, and are wont to view societies in the "Third World" as symptomatic of exotic irrationalities and ancient hatreds, India's darkest state may have just proved you wrong.