Has the Bihari citizen spoken?

The 2010 Bihar election clearly reflected people’s voice, but sustained engagement by all sections of the society would be required for these voices to shape the government.

In a press conference following the massive victory in the election, the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar remembered the massive changes that have happened in the electoral atmosphere of Bihar. As soon as the election got over, we would visit hospitals or families of dead people. It did not look like an election; it looked like war, he recalled. He also characterised erstwhile strategies of political parties during elections as logon ka kayal kam, booth ka kayal jadha i.e. more thinking went into managing the voting booth than into seeking people’s mandate. This election has been remarkably different: free from violence, free from complaints of malpractice, and focused relentlessly on performance of the government.

The percentage of women who voted went up by nearly 22%, and for the first time a greater proportion of women voted in the election compared to men. This is in part due to a conscious attempt by Nitish Kumar to cultivate a support base among women. As it happens always in India, the poor and long marginalized communities voted in significant proportions. All these put together, it is clear that the voice of the common voter was best reflected in this election than any held before.

Voices that shape the government

The voice of the Bihari voter was loud, clear and unambiguous. Can they now rest and wait for the next election? Unfortunately, the voices that shape politics are not spoken only during elections. The limit of the influence of voters was illustrated on the day of elections itself: BJP leaders made strident announcements that this election will prove that only good performance will count in politics, and that the Bihar election has changed Indian democracy forever. Between these announcements, the spokesperson came out to announce that they will retain their corrupt Chief Minister in Karnataka. So much for the fear of voters and the pressure to deliver!

If people speak only when they cast the ballot, they will only have a limited voice in how the government performs over time. We live in a world where corrupt politicians, contractors, officials and others in positions of power mobilise every day for their private benefit. The common person has to compete in this brutal atmosphere for the attention of the government. Having a voice requires persistence, and consistent engagement.

Participation beyond choosing governments

This would be true even if one has a well-meaning government. Voice represents not just a protest, it represents collaboration. Our needs and circumstances are different as men, women, Dalits, Brahmins, poor or a middle class person. Solutions created with one community in mind in state capitals may not work for another community elsewhere. For example, one former BDO explained to me that a scheme to construct free latrines in houses will have a limited appeal in rural India, since each house has to maintain a sufficient area for the sceptic tanks. When houses themselves are small, most people are unwilling to sacrifice 1/4th or more area for sceptic tanks. He suggested a system of pipes to connect houses to a common tank for each village, instead of the privatised model for each family that is common among the middle-classes.

Such feedback would not be possible if common people are unable to voice their concerns over programmes, and kick them upstairs to the corridors of power. The citizen has to raise her voice and contribute to the design of policies if we have to create solutions that are lasting. We cannot just vote and hope that all will work well i.e. a deliver-ative democracy is no substitute to a deliberative democracy.

Family, society & democracy

This would require every social group to participate in debates and to be taken seriously by others in the society. This means, for example, that a poor Dalit woman should be treated with respect in the Panchayat, the Block office, media and other influential spaces. It means that she should have the space in the family to go out of the house and to represent her case to others freely. It means that she must have the skills and the knowledge to craft effective solutions for her issues; a skill that will grow with participation, trial and errors. True democracy cannot be created without changes in all these spheres.

Such changes in the family and the society would represent a major social revolution. Is Bihar ready for that? We know that major social changes have happened in the past few decades, and the representation of those who were long marginalized has grown. Measures such as 50% reservation for women in Panchayats will contribute to strengthening women’s voices, and political competition will force every party to take all social groups more seriously. Much has happened in Bihar that we should all cherish. But have these changes been enough for the common Bihari to keep the government on its toes? The Bihari voter has spoken…but will the Bihari citizen now speak?

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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