We got a glimpse of it when nearly 200 vehicles, part of the cavalcade of former Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) MP Shahabuddin, reportedly crossed the toll plaza at Muzaffarpur without paying the mandatory toll. They were allowed to do so, apparently at the insistence of a police officer.

For a Bihar that is still learning to follow the rule of law, this is the kind of high profile transgression that is going to hurt. And with the release of Shahabuddin, many more such transgressions are feared. After all, “he had a monopoly on the smash-and-grab business in Siwan,” writes Sankarshan Thakur in his book Single Man: The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar.

Shahabuddin Not Willing to Change

The owner of the “smash-and-grab business in Siwan” walked out on bail last week. If the widespread celebration, at least in some quarters, that followed his release is any indication, Shahabuddin’s aura seems to be intact, despite spending 11 years in jail. The RJD strongman, on his part, has dropped enough hints that he is not going to mend his ways.

Shahabuddin was one of the many criminal-turned-politicians who were shown their place when Nitish Kumar took charge of Bihar in 2005. Fast track courts were set up to expedite trials. Pending cases were cleared and conviction rates increased. It is because of these actions that Nitish earned the sobriquet of ‘sushashan’ babu. Nitish’s image and his no-nonsense approach on the law and order front yielded multiple results.

Impact of ‘Sushashan’

One of the most significant outcomes was the reduction in the hold of muscle power in Bihar politics. Of all the candidates who had contested Bihar assembly elections in 2005, nearly 40 percent of them had criminal records against them. The number dropped to 30 percent ten years later, according to the data compiled by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).

The proportion is still on the higher side but the fact that it has dropped by 10 percentage points suggests that criminal-turned-politicians’ promise of “getting things done” was losing its appeal in Bihar. Why was the proportion of candidates with criminal records quite high in the first place? Why has it been dropping? Shahabuddin’s case illustrates this. Sankarshan Thakur’s book gives details of how Shahabuddin would take care of requests from the people in his area.

He held court every day. There never seemed to be any dearth of petitioners...It was never that the don was unable to address the prayer, the message was he wouldn’t.

Sankarshan Thakur, Single Man: The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar

When Mafias Fill in for the State

For a state where government machinery had all but collapsed during Lalu Prasad’s regime, the only way to get things done- from admission in schools and hospitals to getting an FIR registered- was with the help of the likes of Shahabuddin. Well known commentator Milan Vaishnav had told me some time ago, “where the state is unable to deliver benefits, justice, or security, such individuals attempt to fill the gap. Over time, the hope is the state apparatus gets strengthened and reinvigorated. That will start marginalising politicians who attempt to substitute for the state.”

Is the State Machinery Weakening?

Nitish Kumar, during his two terms as chief minister, tried to give the impression that the state apparatus was getting strengthened. This rendered private courts like that of Shahabuddin almost redundant. From building roads to stocking hospitals with essential medicines; from appointing teachers in schools to enforcing the rule of law- Nitish worked tirelessly to reinvigorate the state machinery. With these measures taking roots, people of the state began to distance themselves from the Robin Hood- types, as their services were no longer required.

Now into his third term, Nitish seems to have lost some grip over his administration. The state machinery looks fragile, with a number of high profile cases in recent months. While the crime rate gives a sense of stability, anecdotal evidence points to deteriorating law and order situation in the state. This is a time when people generally turn towards Robin Hood-types for help. Does the kind of cheering Shahabuddin got, after walking out of jail indicate that? If that is the case, Nitish Kumar will have to do something drastic to ensure that he comes on top of the battle of perception.

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