After a visit to my mother that coincided with a general election in Bihar in early 2005, I had noted descriptions of its first city Patna as the capital of hell on earth, its Hobbesian quality of life with large-scale kidnappings for ransom as the only growth industry, the destruction of infrastructure and collapse of law and order, and caste identity as the most potent basis for political mobilisation under 15 years of misrule by the charismatic but destructive Lalu Yadav.
The inconclusive results of the state elections then led to political instability and fresh elections in which Yadav was defeated and a new state government took office under the leadership of Nitish Kumar.
Bihar has just held a new state election that turned into a referendum on Kumar's five-year tenure. Yadav tried to recreate his winning caste-based political coalition with a cross-appeal to Muslims who make up one-fifth of the state's 83 million population. His efforts were decisively repudiated and his party and political allies decimated, winning only 29 of the 243 legislative seats. By contrast, Kumar's coalition increased its tally from 143 to 207.
The Congress party had fielded candidates in all 243 seats, but won only five, down from an already historic low of nine seats in the outgoing assembly. Party President Sonia Gandhi, as also party general secretary and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi, had campaigned extensively and drew enthusiastic crowds but the big crowds failed to translate into votes at the poll.
Yadav's wife Rabri Devi and two brothers-in-law also contested and lost. Jubilant Kumar supporters commented that voters had chosen merit over dynastic politics. Should this trend away from family loyalty to governance record as the basis for voting spread across the country, India can only gain in the years ahead as its democracy matures.
Make no mistake. Bihar remains one of India's most backward, poor, violent, caste-riven states. Its social and economic indicators (per capita income, literacy, life expectancy, child and maternal mortality, etc) would place it among the bottom of sub-Saharan African countries.
The complexity and challenges can readily be imagined from the fact that the state elections had to be conducted in five phases. If identity politics are losing their grip on the voters even of Bihar, the implications for the rest of India are momentous. If leadership and development are to be rewarded and non-performance punished, all political parties will have to readjust policies and priorities and be responsive to voter concerns.
What then are the performance indicators for which Kumar has been rewarded so handsomely, wining over four-fifths of the legislative seats? To begin with, in the past few years Bihar's growth rate of over 11 percent has been second only to that of industrial powerhouse Gujarat among India's states. This is less impressive when we remember the very low base from which it began.
During the 15 dark years of the Lalu raj (1990 to 2005), it had become more and more difficult to retain any pride in the state or desire to go there unless absolutely necessary. It was increasingly difficult to travel to any destination in Bihar after reaching Patna, and increasingly risky to stay for any length of time.
Physical infrastructure was engaged in a fierce race to the bottom with the collapsing infrastructure of social services, deteriorating law and order and public safety, and rising rates of violent crime.
Nitish Kumar invested heavily in upgrading visible infrastructure like roadways, which also, of course, provided much-needed employment to lower caste groups who previously had voted solidly for Lalu Yadav.
Equally impressive were efforts to upgrade social services and infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of new school teachers were recruited and their salaries actually paid. Girls who stayed in the school system up to a certain level were rewarded with shiny new bicycles which they proudly rode to school on the newly constructed roads.
Health specialists and doctors could be found once again in the public clinics and hospitals whose medicine cupboards were no longer bare. And so the ordinary people returned to the public education and health system in large numbers.
The women of Bihar celebrated virtually overnight political empowerment through a mandatory 50 percent quota at all levels of the panchayati raj (village council level self-government). Early indications are that more women than men voted in the 2010 state elections!
India is currently experiencing a spate of mega-corruption scandals that are unprecedented in their gargantuan scale and numbers. The misuse of public office for private gain is so pervasive and institutionalised as to leave most Indians feeling sickened. Bihar is no exception to the national profile. But the scale, ubiquity and intensity of the problem have declined compared to the Lalu years.
Precisely because Bihar has been a byword for backwardness, lack of development and opportunities, and other social and economic ills, large numbers of its people have migrated to other urban and agricultural growth nodes in search of even casual, low wage employment. This has occasionally created friction between migrant Bihari labour and local chauvinistic bullies.
Kumar made it a point to stand up for the rights of expatriate Biharis in other parts of the country.
All is far from being honky-dory in Bihar. Nitish, as he is popularly known, would be the first to admit to the scale and gravity of the challenges that remain. But at least his efforts and record to date have been recognised and rewarded and he has been given a stable second term to keep moving Bihar forward.
The implications and portents for the state and the nation are encouraging. It gives concrete meaning to President Barack Obama's comment during his recent visit that India has emerged as a global player not despite but because of democracy.
Ramesh Thakur is Professor of Political Science, University of Waterloo and Adjunct Professor, Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University, Australia.