For decades, Bihar was a byword for all that ailed India. This fertile northern state enjoyed a reputation as one of the most corrupt places in a country plagued by sleaze. Bihar's politicians, police, and criminals fused into a malevolent nexus. Venal politicians and officials siphoned off development funds to fill their own coffers. Young people moved to richer states in search of a better life. The only thriving industries were kidnapping and protection rackets. At sundown, traders shuttered their businesses and people hurried indoors as armed gangs took over the streets. Poverty in some parts of the state resembled that of sub-Saharan Africa.
That was then. Today Bihar boasts the fastest growth rate of India's 28 states. Its economy is expanding at an astonishing rate of over 14 percent, far ahead of the national average of about 7.5 percent. And that's no flash in the pan. Between 2005 and 2009 the state maintained a steady expansion of about 11.5 percent each year -- a sharp improvement on the 3.5 percent in the half-decade before. These days Biharis throng to shopping malls and restaurants. Movie theaters again draw late-night crowds, and real estate prices are on the rise -- two reliable indicators of growing public confidence.
There are many components to Bihar's success. But surely none of them is quite as dramatic as its war on corruption. "Undoubtedly corruption has taken over India," write economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari in their just-released book, Corruption in India: The DNA and the RNA. "It rules over the country with its stranglehold in every aspect of the state and consequently in all aspects of life of citizens." But perhaps their most startling conclusion is that Bihar -- once that bastion of graft -- is now "the least corrupt state" in India.
That claim comes at a moment when the national self-confidence of the world's biggest democracy has been blighted by the stain of malfeasance. The term of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, personally honest and but utterly ineffective, has yielded revelations of one massive scam after another. Pressured by public attention and alert courts, at least three members of Parliament, including a cabinet minister, and several high-ranking officials and corporate executives, have been sent to prison for allegedly looting taxpayers' money. They might have gone scot-free had not millions of outraged Indians come out onto the streets in support of an anti-graft movement launched by a septuagenarian Gandhian named Anna Hazare. "No one gets punished for corruption in our country," Arvind Kejriwal, a leading activist of the India Against Corruption movement and a top aide to Hazare, has written. "[T]here is not a single anti-corruption agency that is independent of the government or has the complete powers to take action."
Against this dismal background, Bihar stands out. While the sources of its success may be dramatic, they aren't particularly mysterious. They are rooted -- as has so often been the case in other successful anti-corruption fights around the world -- in a simple ingredient: political will.
It all started in 2005, when Nitish Kumar, a now 60-year-old former engineer with a reputation for simplicity and uprightness, took over as the state's chief minister, unseating a scam-tainted politician named Lalu Yadav and his wife, Rabri Devi. The couple, surrounded by hordes of scheming relatives and caste loyalists, had ruled the state for nearly 15 years and left it at the bottom of virtually all development rankings.
Kumar, who started his political career as a young activist in a nationwide anti-corruption crusade in the 1970s, was determined to show the state's 103 million people some results. With an unwavering determination rare in India's opportunistic and fractious party politics, Kumar launched initiatives on several fronts -- from getting girls to school with free bicycles to putting lazy, corrupt government officials on notice to shape up or face punishment. "Nitish Kumar has shown that with a clean image and strong political will, one can bring about steady improvement in the life of citizens," says anti-corruption crusader Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information. "He strengthens democracy and stands out among all the other politicians in India."