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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 February, 2005, 02:51 GMT
Bihar's loyalties cast in stone
By Amarnath Tewary
BBC News, Patna

People in Bihar
More than 40% in Bihar live in abject poverty. Pics: Prashant Ravi
More than 40% of its people live in abject poverty, less than half can read or write and its per-capita income is a third of the Indian average.

It is India's most lawless state - a murder takes place every two hours, a rape is committed every six and a bank is looted every day, according to police records.

Kidnapping for ransom is a flourishing industry - police say someone is abducted every six hours. There have been more than 30,000 kidnappings since 1992.

So why do development and law and order not seem to matter to the 86m people of Bihar?

It is a question many people are asking again in the middle of state elections.

Vote bank

The staggered three-stage elections end on 23 February, when the third round is held.

Political scientists say the entrenched caste system is the bane of development and law in Bihar.

BIHAR'S WOES
Bihar's per capita income is $94 a year against India's average of $255
A total of 42.6% live below the poverty line against India's average of 26.1%
A total of 47.5% are literate against India's 65.38%
There were 32,600 kidnappings from 1992 to September 2004
More than 1,000 political workers have been murdered since 1990

A total of 16.5% of Bihar's people are Muslims and another 12.7% belong to the Yadav caste - one of the designated "other backward castes" that make up 35% of the population.

Lower still are the scheduled castes that comprise 14% of the people.

Other castes include the Kayasthas (12%), Kurmis and Koeris (7.7%) and Brahmins (4.7%).

For the past 15 years, Bihar has been ruled by the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a socialist party backed by low-caste Hindus and led by the populist and controversial Laloo Prasad Yadav.

Mr Yadav and his party are also a key ally of the Congress party that leads the federal government.

Despite Bihar's travails, Mr Yadav keeps getting voted back into power.

Analysts say this is mainly because Mr Yadav has managed to neatly stitch together a hitherto unbeatable Muslim-Yadav vote bank by empowering and protecting both.

"Caste still plays a central role in Bihar elections," says social scientist Shaibal Gupta of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute.

"People might talk about crime, corruption, development or other local issues but ultimately they vote on caste lines."

Violent politics

Analysts agree that Mr Yadav's rise to power ended years of political dominance by upper-caste leaders and parties.

But this has happened at the expense of development - Bihar is backward in roads, schools and hospitals and there has been a breakdown in law and order.

Doctors in Bihar
A spate of kidnappings of doctors has led them to increase security

Voting along caste lines has given rise to a violent political culture where most political parties field candidates with criminal records, and mercenary private caste gangs intimidate and kill rivals.

More than 1,000 political workers and leaders have been killed in the state since 1990, according to police records.

The dire poverty and lawlessness do not deter Mr Yadav.

"I have a contract with the people of Bihar to rule for 20 years. So it is time to go for its renewal," Mr Yadav told the BBC.

Mr Yadav says Bihar finds itself at the bottom of the ladder because of discriminatory federal policies.

"But now with a friendly central government, we will make it one of the most prosperous states in India," he says.

Surprise result?

Reviving Bihar is easier said that done.

India's President APJ Kalam has talked about a prosperous India in 2020 with a growth rate of 10% and a per capita income of $1,400.

Bihar derelict school
A derelict primary school in a state which once led education in India

"Bihar needs investment of nearly $10bn every year to catch up on the president's vision," says Shaibal Gupta.

That seems to be well nigh impossible.

Mr Yadav's "contract to rule" could run into heavy weather when votes are counted on 27 February.

There may be a hung assembly or a surprise win for a mosaic of opposition parties, including a low-key coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Mr Yadav's arch opponent, Ram Vilas Paswan, who leads a regional party, feels people are fed up with the lawlessness and lack of development.

"A large section of Muslims are disenchanted with Mr Yadav's promises," he says.


SEE ALSO:
Police rescue abducted Bihar boy
02 Feb 05 |  South Asia
Voting in Bihar's badlands
05 May 04 |  South Asia
Jail no bar for Bihar candidates
21 Apr 04 |  South Asia
Eight die in India 'caste attack'
03 Jul 04 |  South Asia
India's lawless state
16 Nov 04 |  South Asia


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