As voting comes to an end in long drawn-out, multi-phase elections in Bihar on Saturday, it seems the Indian state is beginning to shed its reputation for lawlessness, caste violence and banditry. While voters determine who will inhabit the 243-member provincial assembly, these issues - including the muscle and money power of the candidates - have been subordinated. The main question now is how the state government can function more effectively and provide better governance. It is such a change from the last time I visited Bihar five years ago, again in the thick of electioneering. Then, Bihar began where the rule of law ended. The only industry which thrived in the badlands of the state was crime. Kidnapping, carjacking and extortion were rampant, and Bihar's fertile soil had turned into killing fields with bloody caste wars erupting with destructive regularity. With most criminal activity being traced back to the state's powerful elite, the morale of the bureaucracy, particularly the police, was low and not many dared to venture out after sunset - even in the capital city, Patna. Words like governance and development had gone out of the local lexicon. There were stretches of road between pot holes and it was rare to have a government school which had students, teachers and a building. Usually at least one of these three would be missing. Enlightenment
Bihar was not always like that.
It once represented the best and the brightest of India, offering a rare mix of the sublime, the spiritual and the earthly. It was here that Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment. Nalanda university, now in ruins, was once the most sought-after seat of learning. And the mighty empires which sprang up here in ancient times earned India the sobriquet of the Golden Bird. Not everything good about Bihar was ancient.
Bihar was in the forefront of India's freedom struggle and Mahatma Gandhi launched some of his early campaigns against British colonial rule from the state. It...