A country with a population of 50 million and a province of a neighbouring country having over 100 million people; both go to polls and both ring victory bells for democracy and sound an alarm for the forces of social retrogression.
Myanmar (still known internationally with its former official name, Burma) is India’s neighbouring country with a population of over 50 million; Bihar is a state (province) in India with twice as many people as in Myanmar. Myanmar is one of the most backward countries in Asia, if not in the world, whereas Bihar is one of the most underdeveloped areas in India. Sometimes the states of India that lag behind in development carry an acronym BIMARU i.e. Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh (UP), and out of these Bihar has almost always featured in the lower rungs.
Both Bihar and Burma have predominantly rural populations; both have economies that heavily depend on agriculture rather than industry or services. Regional unrests have marred both Bihar and Burma for decades; Adivasi and Naxalite movements constantly troubled Bihar for at least forty years and Shan, Karen, and Rakhine regions have remained sore points for Burma. Both have disgruntled Muslim populations, though in Bihar they are much more secure than in Burma. Another common feature is a considerable Bengali presence in both that the governments have tried to curtail, more ruthlessly in Burma.
Recent elections in Bihar and Burma have come about at a critical juncture for them; democracy, secularism, religious tolerance, and economic reforms appear to be at the crossroads. In Bihar — as in the rest of India — democratic roots are deeper thanks to regular free and fair elections since independence. But democracy is not only about elections, it is also about equitable distribution of wealth; accountability, transparency, and freedom from corruption and discrimination. Bihar fails miserably on all these counts, and so does Burma that has been mostly ruled by serving or retired army generals.
When you look at the map of that region — from Nepal to Bihar, West Bengal, Bangladesh, and Burma — you realise that these countries and states have undergone major changes recently. Nepal and Bangladesh have opted for secular constitutions. West Bengal that was traditionally ruled by communists is no more with the Marxist but has steered clear of the rightest Modi wave opting for Mamta Banerjee, another secular leader. Bangladesh is trying to stem the surge of religious extremism and had recently tried and punished leaders of religious parties that were found by courts to be perpetrators of heinous crimes.
With this background, the election results in Bihar and Burma can stem the flow of religious extremism in the region. Though Aung San Suu Kye is well-respected abroad for her democratic credentials, she has not been vocal about Buddhist onslaught against Muslims living in the Rakhine region of Burma. Probably she was careful not to annoy the Buddhist religious lobby before the elections. But a leader of her caliber is expected to be candid about such issues and should openly support religious and ethnic minorities.
Bihar in this sense has had a better record where LK Advani was arrested on his mission to build Ram Temple in place of Babri Mosque in 1990. At that time Lalu Prasad Yadav was chief minister of Bihar and he did not even think twice about the wrath of the religious right in Bihar. Though Bihar suffered a lot during his 14 year rule in terms of corruption and lack of development, at least he saved Bihar from religious extremism to a great extent.
National League for Democracy has won most seats in the Burmese elections now, but it is worth recalling that in 1990 too it had won majority seats; the ruling military junta at that time refused to concede its defeat and annulled the election results just as General Yahya Khan had done in Pakistan in 1971. For 25 years Burma has suffered isolation and lack of foreign investment. The military-supported Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) has been in power since 2011; and the constitution prepared under military supervision reserves 25 per cent seats in the parliament for the military personnel. Now even if Aung San Suu Kyi has two-thirds majority, she cannot become the president for the constitution bans anybody having husband or children who are foreign nationals.
Another common feature between Burmese and Bihar elections is the popular involvement in the voting process. In Burma around 80 per cent of eligible voters have cast their votes; that means out of around three million voters, close to 25 million exercised their right to vote. In Bihar also the voter turnout was close to 60 per cent which is very good even if compared with the usual voter turnout in some of the most developed countries.
Since Suu Kyi will not be allowed to become president — at least till the constitution is amended — she is planning to play the role of a grand dame in her party on the pattern of Indian National Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, who did not herself become the prime minister but selected Manmohan Singh to be the prime minister twice.
In Bihar, the Grand Alliance has won 178 seats out of 243, whereas the BJP-led alliance could secure only 58 seats. Current chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, was in alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadu’s Rashtarya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Indian National Congress. In this election the BJP in Bihar preferred to use Narendra Modi as the front face more than any local leader and that is one of the reasons why the BJP’s defeat is being construed as Modi’s personal failure. This is the second state election that the BJP has lost this year; the first being against Aam Admi Party of Kejriwal in Delhi.
In both Bihar and Burma, the victorious parties are considered to be centre-left — if that means being pro-democracy, secular, and opposed to tyranny and authoritarian rule. In Burma, the winning party will need to face the military hegemony and negotiate a transfer of power from an army-dominated government to a civilian setup. In Bihar, the winners will need to first settle their own difference on cabinet slots and then stand up to a hostile central government led by Modi.
Both Bihar and Burma have almost similar economic challenges in terms of taking their regions out of poverty, underdevelopment, and social divisions. Both need to take on board their marginalised segments of society such as religious and ethnic minorities. Despite democratic traditions, Bihar has seen prolonged rule dominated by one person; first by Lalu Prasad for 14 years and then by Nitish Kumar for ten years. This must not be replicated by Burma in the shape of a personality cult of Suu Kyi, who is not yet the ruler but might turn out to be one; beware the Burmese people.