India seeks to rein in rogue state

THE 90 MILLION people of Bihar were in effect without a government yesterday, as India's President, K R Naray-anan, considered whether to accede to the central govern-ment's recommendation to impose "President's Rule" on the impoverished north Indian state.

It is unlikely that many Biharis noticed the difference. The state has been a byword for lawlessness for years.

The central government's case is that Article 356, which transfers power in a state from the elected government to the President, is necessary to end Bihar's "bad governance, social anarchy, rank casteism and criminalisation of politics".

Racked by extravagant corruption scandals, ruled by the uneducated wife of a clownish populist, himself implicated in scandal, Bihar is the Indian nightmare at its most garish and absurd. Government in the state is an opportunity forlimitless plunder, while society is as an endless, low- level civil war between castes. These depressing phenomena, encountered in many parts of the country, find their highest expression in Bihar.

For the past eight years, Bihar has been ruled by a pudgy, tub-thumping, mop-haired, betel-chewing figure called Laloo Prasad Yadav. Notoriously averse to office work, he has allowed Bihar's already rickety administration to go to ruin. What he is good at is pleasing a crowd, rousing popular indignation and calling a spade a spade.

Mr Yadav's early moment of glory came when he halted a Hindu nationalist yatra (procession) that was traversing the country, whipping up communal sentiment, at the state border. For this he earned his secularist stripes, and the votes of Muslims as well as the middle-ranking castes in the state.

In power, however, he has proved staggeringly unscrupulous. His fellow Yadavs - a cow-herding caste - have been rewarded with an extraordinary number of government posts. Despite his victim rhetoric, he has made tacit alliances with high-caste feudal landlords, and under his rule caste massacres have become commonplace. The worst was in June 1997, when 64 Dalits, so- called "Untouchables", were shot dead in their village by members of Ranbir Sena, a private army sponsored by the big landlords.

Even in the Indian context, Laloo Yadav's behaviour has been so outrageous that his fall has been long predicted. Last year he was rarely out of the headlines: a scandal involving the stealing of tens of millions of rupees, supposedly intended to buy fodder for non-existent cattle, was exposed, and Laloo was universally believed to be at the centre of it. Finally he went to "prison" - a well-appointed government guest house. As he could not rule Bihar from prison, he appointed his wife, Rabri, in his place. He was later released on bail, but could be back in jail at any time, and Rabri's puppet government has continued in power.

The pity of it is that there is nothing inevitable about Bihar's poverty: the state has 40 per cent of India's mineral wealth, but little of it is exploited.

Ruled by politicians with a modicum of maturity and restraint, the state of Bihar could be transformed. But any opportunity Laloo might have had to effect the transformation is past. The national government has pushed through a plan to cut the state in two. The mineral-rich southern portion will become the new state of Vananchal. Northern Bihar, the Laloo heartland, is likely to continue to wallow in poverty.

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