The underbelly of Bihar makes up the fine print of the message to the state’s MLAs, issued by the Speaker of the Assembly, Vijay Kumar Sinha, on the occasion of the centenary celebration of the legislature. “We all legislators will put up formal boards outside our houses, declaring that we have nothing to do with crime, our families are free of any addiction, we do not support child marriages, we do not support the dowry system and child labour,” the Speaker has piously suggested. Primarily, the MLAs have been asked to declare in writing that they have nothing to do with crime. Bihar being Bihar, not many will be impressed with such advisories, intended to buttress a holier-than thou image of the supposedly august envoys to the Assembly.

The members are expected to initiate a vigorous campaign to free society of these five social evils and work together in order to check what the Speaker calls the “sharp decline in values”. Legislators have been urged to create “such an environment so that people’s faith in democracy can be restored”. By implication and in reality, democracy has over time suffered severe erosion in Bihar. The Speaker’s appeal to MLAs to publicly reject their links to criminal activity must be juxtaposed against the evaluation of at least two election watchdogs ~ Association for Democratic Rights (ADR) and Election Watch.

Going by the evaluation of these entities, at least 68 per cent of the newly elected legislators of the Bihar Assembly have criminal cases against them. This represents a 10 percentile increase when compared to the 2015 Assembly election. The total number of legislators with criminal records against them is 163 in the 243-member Assembly. A piechart would reveal that this represents a significant segment of the elected members, thus reducing the House to a thoroughly tainted entity. The state thus boasts a decidedly flawed version of democracy. Of the legislators of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, an estimated 73 per cent wear the taint of criminality; 64 per cent of the BJP’s legislators are so arraigned while the Janata Dal (United) fares somewhat better with a 47 per cent score.

The Congress can claim a degree of consolation ~ only 17 per cent of its legislators face criminal cases. Altogether, the electorate has been taken for a ride. Arguably, in few states is the proposed bar on such persons seeking election more applicable. Severe corrective action against the canker that has permeated legislatures is direly imperative. Democracy cannot flourish if its bedrock creaks at the joints, as implicitly and rather optimistically addressed by the Speaker of the Assembly. Bihar is a state that doesn’t always show the way.