Books

Nitish Kumar: The Development Man Who Turned Complacent

An excerpt from the book 'JP To BJP: Bihar After Lalu And Nitish' By Santosh Singh

From JP TO BJP (Vitasta Sage Select, 2021)
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Nitish Kumar did not do anything for the Kurmi Chertna rally. Yet, he hijacked it…

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My development card did not pay off. Narendra Modi’s all cards had clicked…

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A seven-kilometer ride through serpentine concrete road from Harnaut block town of Nalanda takes one to Kalyanbigha village. A temple is the first landmark at the very entrance of the village, now boasting of an ITI centre, a hospital, a power sub-station and two schools. An adjacent pond is half full. Just on the other side of the pond is a house, the wall of which used to be plastered with dung cakes not too long ago. It is now a pucca house and the last house in the village to get electricity connection. The house also has a gaushala (cowshed). The house-keeper Sitaram, grown frail with age, sits on a charpoy outside, eagerly waits for the house owner Nitish Kumar’s son, Nishant. The young man in white kurta and pajama quietly comes to his paternal village to pay tribute to his mother Manju Sinha on her death anniversary at his family park that also has busts of his freedom fighter grandfather Ramlakhan Singh Vaidya and grandmother Parmeshwari Devi. Nishant stays there for some 20 minutes, shakes hands with some villagers and leaves back for Patna. Nishant hardly interacts with media, he and his father like it that way.

The distance between Kalyanbigha and 1, Anne Marg – the CM residence in Patna, is just 70 km but Nitish Kumar alone knows what it has taken to reach there against mighty Lalu Prasad and more importantly stay there for long.

It was sometime in 1980. Munna Sarkar was pillion-riding back Nitish Kumar after public interaction in Rahui under Harnaut, Nalanda. It had already got dark and headlight of their motorcycle had been getting dimmer. They decided to leave the bike at a villager’s house and take some vehicle to reach Harnaut. After long wait, they saw an overcrowded jeep coming. Nitish Kumar and Munna Sarkar anyhow got into the jeep and travelled in a standing position bending forward.

This small journey tells a lot about resilience of Nitish Kumar, who made it to Assembly in his third attempt. Munna Sarkar, the most trusted aide of Kumar in his formative days in politics, said he had no idea that he had been taking future Bihar CM for a ride for seven years. Sarkar recalled how after second consecutive defeat in 1980, Nitish Kumar had thought of doing some business and in fact, had become a dummy investor in Peerless company for some time.

The man who started with a pillion ride on a bike went on to occupy the front seat of state politics.

Munna Sarkar recalled how Nitish Kumar would not give up in face of his electoral defeat in 1977 Assembly polls against mighty leader Bhola Prasad Singh. Nitish, working mostly from his Bakhtiarpur home, would move around Harnaut Assembly segment of Nalanda and would engage public. Sarkar said Karpoori Thakur had great influence of Nitish Kumar. On one occasion when everyone wanted to invite sports minister as the chief guest for a cricket tournament, Nitish dropped idea of inviting aDalit rickshaw puller the chief guest. The man, who later cultivated his constituency among scheduled caste Mahadalits, had sown its seeds in Nalanda.

Nitish Kumar had been wary of money and muscle power in politics and at times would say he was misfit in politics. But his mother Parmeshwari Devi, said Sarkar, had bigger faith in her son’s ability than anyone else. She would make it a point to give a part of her pension savings during nomination of Nitish Kumar for every election. Nitish Kumar was fondly addressed as Munna by his mother. “At times when she would address him as Nitish, he would interrupt asking his mother to address him only as Munna,” (1) recalls Munna Sarkar, who stopped pillion-riding Nitish on his bike after he became an MLA from Harnaut. An MLA would get government vehicle two days in a month and Nitish would ensure he attended all important meetings of district and block. Munna Sarkar, a neighbour of Nitish Kumar in Bakhtiarpur, had been associated with Kumar since JP Movement. Besides Sarkar, close circle of Nitish Kumar included Manikchand Saroj Kumar, Janardhan Sharma in his Bakhtiarpur days.

Unlike Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar never overtly played caste politics, even though he has been very meticulous with his caste arithmetic behind the scene. Nitish Kumar does not like to talk much about 1994 Kurmi Chetna rally, one of the biggest political landmarks of his career giving him a pan-Bihar image and also confidence to come out of shadow of Lalu Prasad. But the rally was not Nitish Kumar’s idea, nor did it use Nitish Kumar’s face. Nor was any poster of Nitish Kumar was used for the rally. It is a rare coincidence that a person – Nitish in this case, emerges as a bigger leader after the rally without having played much role in it. And the person who played some role, Satish Kumar (a Kurmi leader), has been relegated to unimportance long ago.

Kurmi Chetna rally came as an idea by a select group of non-political persons to give a sense of political empowerment to OBC Kurmis who had been otherwise socially and educationally doing pretty well in comparison to other OBCs including Yadavs. But the bare truth of the rally was that the biggest Kurmi leader of the time and second most powerful leader of the state after Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar was not willing to support it. "Aaplog din me taare dekh rahe hain. Log kahan se aayenge? (you people are day dreaming. How would you arrange crowd for the rally?" (2) said Biresh Sinha, who was part of a group of Kurmi leaders who had gone to meet Nitish Kumar after the idea of the rally was mooted. While Nitish refused to take active part in it, he did suggestaddition of the word, “Chetna (consciousness or awakening)" to proposed Kurmi rally, which later became Kurmi Chetna rally. While All India Kurmi Mahasabha gave its banner later, people like businessman Vinay Singh financially supported it. Satish Kumar, an MLA with Left background, joined it and was only known face. In fact, a young group of 15 young Kurmi men like Ajay Singh Rocket had been leading Kurmi Chetna rath while Anil Kumar, Biresh Sinha and Satish Kumar had been coordinating with the team from Patna headquarters.

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“We would run a pilot vehicle before hitting a route and people were automatically coming to our meetings even though we had no star speakers. Upper caste Bhumihars, who were against Lalu, were supporting us indirectly by providing us buses," (3) said Biresh Sinha. For rallies, they put portrait of Sharad Pawar and Uma Bharati on banners and posters. As rath crossed by Bihar, then Inspector General of police, Intelligence, Ashish Ranjan Sinha, had started getting feedback of a very good turnout at the proposed rally.

Three days before the rally, Nitish Kumar issued a statement saying he would not attend it. "But a day before the rally, he called us and expressed dissatisfaction at putting photos of outsiders of rally banners. But we said we cannot change it. Nitish Kumar perhaps sensed a good turnout. Plus, Nitish Kumar was still with Lalu, who did not want any other Kurmi leader to take credit for the rally and emerge as the leader. He agreed to come. He did not attack Lalu but when Bhola Prasad Singh came to speak, he said it was sin to name Lalu. He got thunderous applause. The very moment would have given confidence to Nitish to chart his own course in politics. Nitish Kumar did not do anything for the rally. Yet, he hijacked it," (4) says Sinha adding how the rally’s direct output was formation of Samata Party. Biresh comes from the same village, Kalyanbigha, as Nitish Kumar.

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The rally had made them overconfident of winning 1995 Assembly polls so that so that several leaders had started discussing even cabinet formation and departments they would handle as ministers. The 1995 Assembly poll results gave Samata Party only seven seats. Nitish was down. He discussed in internal party meetings about aligning either with Congress and BJP. Most leaders wanted to go with Congress. A few months before LK Advani had taken along George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar in Mumbai convention of BJP, Nitish Kumar had refused to share dais with Bihar BJP stalwart Kailashpati Mishra to open status of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at Obra (Aurangabad).

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Cut to 2004 Lok Sabha poll campaign when Nitish Kumar had been contesting from Barh, a villager looked to come menacingly towards NDA candidate Nitish Kumar, stopped by him barely for a minute and said ‘you should build a hospital in this area’ and left without Kumar could say anything. Nitish Kumar would often recount this small story to tell how a common felt need of development after fatigue of Lalu-Rabri rule (or misrule). Nitish Kumar had already been instrumental in bringing an NTPC unit to Barh. He had also brought a railway wheel factory to his hometown Harnaut (Nalanda) during his stint as Union railway minister. When he went to 2004 Lok Sabha election on “India Shining” campaign of AB Vajpayee, he had been pretty confident of his victory from Barh, the Lok Sabha constituency that ceased to exist after delimitation in before 2009 Lok Sabha polls. He had been also contesting from Nalanda. In Barh, RJD nominee Vijay Krishna defeated Nitish Kumar because of social combination of RJD that had surprised all by winning 22 Bihar seats.

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After Barh loss, Mokama JD (U) leader and currently Bihar Information and public relations department minister Neeraj Kumar had gone to meet Nitish Kumar at his Patna residence and said out of frustration “development cannot win elections”. A calm Nitish Kumar said: “One must never lose patience in politics. Development will become an election agenda in Bihar sooner or later.” (5)  Nitish Kumar stuck to this plan when he started Nyay Yatra in run-up to 2005 poll campaign, he moved across the state with theme of ‘development with justice’. While returning from one such trip in Maoist-hit area of Gaya district, he asked his supporters why shops were closed by 8 p.m. His one of them said it was usual in Maoist areas and suggested quick return to safer Gaya town for night stay. Nitish kept mum but got the message. In another instance, he was upset when a supporter at Bihta, suburban town of Patna, had been discussing that there was no night show in cinema hall because of fear factor. Nitish Kumar resolved that it had to change soon. His entire Nyay Yatra dwelt on law and order situation besides poor roads and little trace of governance. 

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As 2005 February election had brought fractured mandate, giving 29 seats to Ram Vilas Paswan’s party, LJP, all attempts to form government either with NDA or with RJD-Congress, had failed. Paswan had declared himself “king maker” and one who held the “key” to any government formation. But Paswan had put a condition of making a Muslim chief minister. It was a poster for Lalu Prasad to show if he really was a votary of Muslims and would stick to his family for power. There was no way BJP-Nitish could have gone to accept it. RJD, despite being single largest party, could not form government. Paswan’s political recalcitrance had forced another election after a brief stint of President’s rule in 2005 end. The decision to impose President’s rule had also come under scanner but the state had anyway exhausted options to form a government. “It was quite possible that we would have accepted Paswan as CM but he had never said so but insisted on a Muslim CM. In any case, LJP had missed a historic chance in government formation with their highest ever seats won," says a senior BJP leader.

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Bihar again went to polls in November 2005. NDA had not yet declared its CM face despite all clear posturing from Nitish Kumar. It was only after encouraging field reports from the first phase of polls that BJP’s central leadership, especially Arun Jaitley, who convinced Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Adani to project Nitish Kumar as NDA CM face. 

Sushil Kumar Modi recalls:

“I had sensed mood of Central leadership and announced candidature of Nitish Kumar in Patna. Nitish Kumar was obviously overwhelmed and called me to say that he would repay it someday”. Nitish’s projection had still some hiccups” (6).

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Nitish Kumar says: “During Bhagalpur rally, Vajpayeeji had to announce my candidature as CM. He dwelt at length at Kislay kidnapping case and also praised me a lot but did not say what he had to say (about my projection as CM). Maybe it slipped his mind” (7).

But from second phase onwards, there had been clarity in NDA camp that romped home to simple but clear opportunity.The man from Kalyanbigha, who had become MLA in third attempt in 1985, had finally arrived in Bihar after traversing through Lok Sabha route and serving as Union railway minister.

Nitish first decided to set governance right – straight from law and order. Then additional director general of police Abhayanand (who later became DGP), was part of his core team to implement concept of speedy trial, which paved way for faster convictions and inculcated sense of fear among criminals. All police stations were strictly asked to keep eye on their list of bad elements. Night patrolling was intensified. Slowly, market places were opening at 10 p.m. district towns.

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Caste violence that had been order of the day during Lalu-Rabri regime (380 people killed in 33 massacres between 1990 and 2003) had been perhaps dealt with Nitish Kumar’s master stroke of implementing panchayat elections in 2006 with 50 per cent reservation for women and 20 per cent for EBCs. After elections, several people from OBC and EBCs got their share of power and participation in governance. Mukhiyas were given funds from Central and state governments to implement several schemers in villages. Decentralisation of power at village level had automatically addressed Maoist problems, which had been on the wane since 2003 and resurfaced just once in 2009 when 16 OBCs and Dalits were killed in Alauli in Khagaria. It was also taken as a repercussion of a flurry of schemes for scheduled caste people christened Mahadalits by Nitish, much to displeasure of Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan. OBCs Koeris and Kurmis of Khagaria had targeted Nitish Kumar’s ultra Mahadalit love and had said that Nitish had been taking his fellow caste for granted in exuberance of newfound love for scheduled caste Mahadalits to create a new constituency.

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Sushil Kumar Modi says:

“The biggest success of NDA-I was empowerment of women at panchayat levels. Several village women from their half-veils had become mukhiyas and felt empowered. They rose in confidence and women had started becoming a caste-neutral constituency” (8).

Reservation for women and EBC in panchayats will surely go down in history in one of the biggest social empowerment tools under Nitish. It was such a deft move to give 50 per cent reservation to women when Centre had been still discussing gender parity without having done anything concrete. Women mukhiyas had been attending meetings even as husbands of most of them had been de facto mukhiyas. This was the period when terms like 'Mukhiya Pati (MP) and Sarpanch Pati (SP)' had been in coinage as a matter of derision. But womenfolk from villages surely had tasted some kind of power. During a meeting of mukhiyas at SK Memorial Hall of Patna in 2007, a woman mukhiya put an interesting demand. “The address of Madam for a woman mukhiya looks too lame, we should be addressed as Sir” (9), she said as audience burst into laughter. But the joke was on those who had been laughing it away. When journalists would ask Nitish Kumar about terms of Mukhiya Pati and Sarpanch Pati, he would say ‘let their husbands wield some power by proxy in first term but by second term women mukhiyas would start realizing their power’. Panchayati Raj did help in creating a cadre at grassroots for JD (U) in particular. Its alliance partner BJP has anyway been a cadre-based party. Panchayati Raj system gave real big opportunity for Nitish Kumar to build his party organization. Nitish Kumar followed it up with winning bicycle scheme for girls, scholarships for non-upper caste students in schools. For Mahadalits andf scheduled castes constituting 16 per cent of state population, 19 welfare and education and housing schemes were announced.

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Nitish, the electrical engineer by training, had turned a social engineer. He had famously said after his 1977 Assembly loss at a Patna coffee house that he would get Bihar power one day, by hook or by crook. He was so rights – he had both hooks and crooks. Elements like Mokama muscleman Anant Singh, Manoranjan Singh Dhumal and Sunil Pande were some of crooks. While deftly doing his social engineering, he maintained fine balance between governance and politics. While his Mahadalit politics would become too obvious at times, his educational reforms till second education were showing in number of school drop-out coming down. The sight of girls going to bicycle was like a picture postcard. Nitish Kumar once said if he had to make a picture of Bihar under his regime, he would draw picture of girls bicycling their way to school. Everything had been doing so well, looking so well because he was still in comparison with Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi.

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The 2009 Lok Sabha and 2010 Assembly polls were not just electoral climax of Nitish Kumar as the astute politician but also the politician, who had now started dreaming big now. Such was popularity of Nitish Kumar in 2009 Lok Sabha polls that he just shared one public platform for NDA PM candidate LK Advani. He had also ensured that his then bête noire Narendra Modi did not get to campaign in Bihar. He had even gone on record to say when there is a “Modi (Sushil) in Bihar, there is no need of another Modi.” It is a different thing that this one sentence of Nitish for his deputy and my 2012 interview of Sushil Modi for The Indian Express in which he had described Nitish as “PM material” (10) hurt the Bihar’s Modi, politically. So much so that he had lost out in Rajya Sabha race to RSS-backed Gopal Narayan Singh in 2016. Sushil Modi’s office was in utter disbelief when a JP Nadda-signed BJP leader had Gopal Narayan Singh. Since Sushil Modi had been close to Arun Jaitley, he was sure to get the RS berth and probable ministerial stint at Centre. But that is another story and it is also quite a story how the other Modi had to struggle hard to stay afloat in Bihar politics. He had started working on his revival plan with unearthing of soil scam involving Lalu family and eventually built up momentum leading to CBI raids on Lalu house in July 2017. It forced Grand Alliance split and Nitish return to NDA. What Narendra Modi could not do in 2015 elections with flurry of rallies in Bihar, Sushil Modi perhaps did with 30-odd Press conferences and new exposes against Lalu family. 

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Back to Nitish, 2009 Lok Sabha template in Bihar did not go at all with national script. NDA did not inspire confidence of coming to power against moderately better-placed UPA under Dr Manmohan Singh. Yet, it had been Nitish Kumar all the way in Bihar. He did create some flutter by saying that he would support any government that gave special category status. One scene from 2009 poll campaign that stands out in my memory in nomination filing of JD (U) candidate Ram Sunder Das from Hajipur from mighty LJP candidate Ram Vilas Paswan. There had been a surge of people. It was crowd for Nitish Kumar in Paswan’s turf. Most political experts had still doubt about 89-year-old Das upsetting Paswan, who had told me during his campaign trip that Nitish should have fielded any young man than the wizened old man. Paswan had been so dismissive of Das, the former CM. But the seasoned Paswan and ‘political weather scientist’ got his assessment wrong. He lost his Hajipur, whose banana and Paswan were like its tags. This was the new high of Nitish Kumar. He had decimated Lalu’s party and also his second individual rival, Paswan. In a way, it was coming to a full circle from a sulking loser of 1977 Assembly poll to defeat all the big and mighty in 2009. The 2010 Assembly polls marked the crescendo building effortlessly like music since 2009. Nitish had got all his social and political calculations rights.

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The 2010 BJP national executive of BJP in Patna did not go quite Nitish way. In fact, it looked scripted to organize the BJP meet under nose of Nitish. Then Gujarat CM and now PM Narendra Modi also came to attend the meet. Modi had got prominent advertisement in Bihar newspapers showing picture of him and Nitish holding their hands aloft in a 2009 Haryana rally and mentioning Gujarat government’s contribution of Rs 5 Crore flood relief fund to Bihar. This was the first obvious national posturing from Modi. It did not go well with Nitish, who looked tense during interaction with media at a Patna hotel.

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Shivanand Tivary, who had accompanied Nitish, says:

“Nitish was livid at the picture. There was no relevance for picture and taking credit for giving Rs 5 Crore flood relief fund to Bihar. So many people still believe that I was instrumental in provoking him against Modi. But I had also endorsed his line of thinking” (11).

The infamous dinner cancellation followed with Nitish putting a rider that Narendra Modi must not come to the dinner. Top BJP leaders went in a sort of huddle and Sushma Swaraj took a call that either all would go or no one would attend. The dinner cancellation strained relationship between the two alliance partners. It reflected during 2010 polls with Sushil Modi once refusing to share dais with Nitish to offer a BJP counter. But the partners stayed afloat amidst chill and grim faces.

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Shekhar Gupta, then editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, had come to Bihar. At time of departure, he asked me “What is your sense?” I said “it should be 150 plus seats for NDA.” He said with a wink “It could be much more.” He was so right. NDA won 206 of 243 seats – JD (U) got 115 and BJP 91. The careful reading of number said JD (U) had been only short of seven for a simple majority on its own. This gave him the first valid reason for Nitish Kumar to nurse national ambition. By 2012 June, Nitish Kumar had started making his first line of demarcation when he said a PM candidate should be of “clean and secular image”. When reporters asked him to clarify, Nitish said: “Golden words are not repeated”. The subsequent win of Narendra Modi ion Gujarat Assembly polls and BJP making him campaign committee head in 2013 in preparation for 2014 Lok Sabha polls crystalized BJP’s politics. Nitish was ready to quit now. 

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Sushil Kumar Modi says:

Nitish Kumar had not hidden anything about our differences and we knew he had been drifting apart. He wanted BJP ministers to meet one last time at CM House. But the party decided that we should do go. The idea was that we must not be ones to resign. It was his call to quit, not ours. (12)

The 2014 Lok Sabha had a tripolar fight among RJD-Congress, NDA and JD (U). There was a marked difference between Nitish of 2010 and Nitish of 2014. He looked forlorn and unsure during his entire poll campaign. He attended 216 public meetings during the campaign, playing audio of Rs 15 lakh assurance. He derided BJP as “Badka Jhhuttha Party” and attacked Centre for not giving Bihar special category status. But it had been Narendra Modi all the way. There had been frenzied crowd everywhere, hanging on to his every word and responding to every poser with yes and no. BJP had won the battle before going to polls. Lalu Prasad did get good crowds from predictable constituency. Nitish got moderate to low crowd. Three-way contest suited BJP perfect, social combination wise or otherwise. Nitish was decimated. His party was reduced from 20 to two seats. Smaller parties like LJP and RLSP had six and three seats. RJD retained four seats. Nitish Kumar from descended from Everest in 2009 and 2020 to meet his Waterloo in 2014. He was down and out as state chief minister soon taking moral responsibility for the loss. He left official CM residence and settled in 7, Circular Road, close to Lalu’s 10, Circular Road. He knew he had to reboot his politics, which is only three houses away. It happened that way.

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Nitish had conceded his tie with Lalu to me in an interview:

“My development card did not pay off. Narendra Modi’s all cards had clicked. I needed mass base of Lalu Prasad to revisit my political calculations.” (13)

As third term (officially fourth if seven-day 2000 stint in included) draws to a close, Nitish has been facing tough questions on his development plank. 

But some good things first.

The real Bihar story in third term (2015-2020) is that of electricity overhaul from lantern age. Two things that distinguish between Nitish and Lalu without any argument are road and electricity. Nitish Kumar had known by 2005 that Bihar could never longer be fed on socialist and social empowerment slogans and people needed something concrete. He got roads and bridges during his first tenure and expanded it to overall infrastructural overhaul by making thousands of schools, hospital and other government buildings and into his second and third tenure. But one thing that kept troubling him was poor electricity supply with rural Bihar being almost being half or unelectrified till late 2013.

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On 15 August, 2012, while speaking at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan, Nitish Kumar grandiloquently announced if he would not seek votes if he was not able to get electricity to each Bihar household by 2015 Assembly elections. This announcement got stuck with him, people, Opposition and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had unsuccessfully tried to attack Nitish on power front during bitterly-fought 2015 Assembly elections.

There is an interesting story before I tell the power story of Bihar. It was time when Lalu Prasad had not yet decided to project Nitish Kumar as CM candidate of Grand Alliance. I had gone to Lalu Prasad’s paternal village of Phulwaria, Gopalganj, to know what Lalu’s villagers think about the political situation. Lalu Prasad’s villagers including some relatives told me that there was nothing wrong in projecting Nitish as getting back power was more important that who should lead the alliance. My report in The Indian Express also mentioned that how Phulwaria had been getting a few hours of electricity supply, only good enough to recharge mobile phones. And when I met Nitish Kumar for a long interview for my first book, Ruled or Misruled: The Story and Destiny of Bihar (Bloomsbury), Nitish Kumar said: “That one line about low power supply in Phulwaria in your report caught my immediate attention and I got officials to improve electricity supply for Phulwaria.”

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This was then for a political reason but what his government did later for power reforms has its impact on entire Bihar. One story that would perhaps tell the importance of electricity and what craving for getting it could do. It is story from twin Koyli and Khutaha village of Bhagalpur). By 2007, what the twin village had got for their efforts were 25 poles without wires — and 20 murders. ‘The first killing happened soon after the administration decided to electrify the two Yadav-dominated villages…The first set of poles were put up at Koyli in 1991. But in the dead of night, a group of youths from Khutaha crossed the nullah that separates the villages, uprooted the poles and carried them to their village. Koyli’s 2,500 people couldn’t let the insult from 10,000-strong Khutaha pass. Ranjit Yadav, 25, of Koyli was the first victim of the gunfights that followed. Koyli got its revenge four years later: three from Khutaha were shot dead in August 1995’ (20 lives for powerless poles, The Telegraph, 6 October, 2007). Ever since 16 more have been killed. (14)

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Bihar State Electricity Board (BSEB) was unbundled into five companies on 1 November, 2012. The energy department had been struggling to collect bills even from government departments. Once, Bihar Military Police-5 did not pay electricity bill and the energy department cut electricity supply for the policemen, who had been livid with electricity department officials. The policemen soon got an opportunity to take their subtle revenge from energy department officials, when some Vidyut Bhavan employees fought among themselves and the police had to be called. The policemen barged into the energy headquarters and beat up several employees. It was the lowest point of the department. Morale was bruised like never before.

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Senior bureaucrat Pratyaya Amrit, who joined as principal secretary of energy department on 10 June, 2014, recounts: 

“We faced the first challenge of rebooting Deendayal Upadhyay Gramin Jyoti Yojna (previously, Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran yojana) because 16 and 25 KVA transformers, which were originally meant for BPL families, would often trip and go out of danger because of overloading. APL families would also take illegal connections. We learnt that some 40,000 transformers of 16/25 KVA had been dysfunctional. Our second reason for concern that no bidder had been coming because of high rates being quotes. Third, we had no transmission evacuation capacity. Fourth, there was no organized field set-up to take up the challenge” (15).

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This was time when Nitish Kumar had handed over state reins to Jitan Ram Manjhi, who looked open to idea of electricity reforms to pursue his master’s scheme of things.

Amrit and his team started identifying problems. He got a World Bank team to know how many days it takes for energy department to clear dues of an energy company and at what level files get stuck up in bureaucratic rigmarole. To utter dismay, the WB team found that it took 127 days – the prime reason for electricity company quoting higher rates during bidding. By September, 2014, new payment policy came intoeffect mandating 75 per cent payment of the bill raised to a company in 15 days and 25 per cent after physical verification of work done but surely before raising of next bill by the company. It helped bidder quote lower rates and attracted top companies of the country and getting them tenders for power overhaul.

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By that time, of 39,038 revenue villages, about 20,000 villages were almost un-electrified. Supply and projects were separated. Now, there were separate executive engineers for supply and new schemes. New outsourced vehicles were given to engineers to visit fields.Nitish Kumar had returned as CM in February 2015. Just when he had been discussing his new governance agenda with then advisor Prashant Kishor and some IAS officers, Pratyaya Amrit told the CM that rural electrification scheme had been proving a non-starter because of two reasons – poor capacity transformers meant only for BPL families and stalemate over payment share between Centre and state. “I impressed upon him to give the energy department state government share for the rural scheme and make it “har ghar Bijli (electricity to every home)” to cover all. He readily agreed and said that we have to ensure good electricity supply before 2015 elections as he had made a promise in 2012,” says Amrit. Over 40,000 transformers of 63 KVA were installed by October 2015, providing electricity to one crore consumers in one go. It was Rs 19,000 Crore project.So, when PM Narendra Modi tried to attack Nitish Kumar during 2015 polls by asking people “Bijli aayi (did electricity come?”, it did not click because power flow had started in rural India. Lalu Prasad had famously mimicked the PM’s power jibes, defending Nitish. It was possible that the PM had not been properly briefed about the Bihar efforts. Much before 2015 elections, then Union power minister Piyush Goyal had got Bihar energy secretary make a presentation in Delhi on how Bihar had replaced burnt transformers such a limited time.

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The assignment of changing transformers was given to only those companies who had been awarded work through tenders. Though then deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi had called “transformer scam”, no adverse remarks were given by subsequent CAG audit nor by vigilance department. ‘Har ghar Bijli’ had been one of seven resolutions of Nitish government in run up to 2015 elections. ‘Power’ had returned him to power in someway against his mighty rival (forgive the pun). The journey that had started from 21 lakh consumers in 2014 had reached to 1.5 Crore consumers by December 2018.

Bihar’s success stories were replicated by Central government, which had first acknowledged the state’s reforms when the Centre launched Saubhagya yojana across the country in September 2018 incorporating 'power to every house theme' Bihar model of implementation. It was preceded by then Union energy secretary Ajay Bhalla and his team visit to Bihar after Amrit had made a presentation in Patna before representatives of 17 states in August 2018.

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Subsequent power reforms included paperless new electricity connections through an App, which did not require any document from consumer. The new meter charges were adjusted in consumers’ bill in instalments. The next big thing is implementation of prepaid smart meters, which would less loss of the department. In 2018, Nitish Kumar had assigned energy department of changing 72,000 circuit km worn-out wires in worth Rs 3,000 Cr project, which was completed by December 2019.

Nitish Kumar’s decision to impose liquor ban in April 2016 was part of his political plan to broad-base his constituency of women and also leave aposter for national politics, especially after he had been exhausted of a credible poll after split from NDA. ‘An indicator that Nitish Kumar has been able to tap into this spring of goodwill lies in the fact that the participation of women in Assembly elections in Bihar, after having risen through the 2000s, surpassed that of men in 2010, when the Chief Minister sought re-election at the end of his first full term. Election Commission data analysed by The Indian Express show that while the turnout of women in the elections of February 2000, February 2005, and October 2005 lagged behind that of men, this gap narrowed from 17.43% to just 2.53% over this period. The inflection point was reached in the elections held in October-November 2010, when the turnout of women voters was 3.37 percentage points more than that of men (54.49% to 51.12%). And in the elections of October-November 2015, the voting percentage among women was a significant 7.16 percentage points higher than among men (60.48% to 53.32%)’. 

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The prohibition law was part of Nitish’s strategy to create and nurture a political constituency among women. It was a classic case that when the same chief minister saw liquor as a revenue spinner and a social evil. After coming to power, Nitish had liberalised liquor policy in 2008 and as licensed liquor shops spread, revenues shot up from Rs 500 crore in 2005 to about Rs 4,000 crore in 2014-15. But this greater access also appeared to directly impact rural poor women, increased drinking by whose menfolk started to eat into meagre household earnings.

Post prohibition, there were many exhilarating success stories. One such example I had traced during my field visits were Manjhiyama (Arwal), with a population of around 5,500, ‘the most visible signs of progress post-prohibition are the rows of 20 new pucca houses, including five each in the EBC and SC settlements. “With the money that villagers have saved, we have seen a boost in household income. For example, around 700 liters of milk used to be sold from this village every day before prohibition. Now, the sale is around 1,000 liters with at least 25 per cent more people having started maintaining cows,” said Umesh Sharma, who owns six Jersey varieties and counts himself among those who have benefitted from prohibition.

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“This was the same village that saw almost 40 per cent of its men, aged between 20 and 50, line up at the liquor shop in the evenings. The shop would remain open from morning till midnight,” says a local official’. (16)

But there were other side of prohibition story that started hurting Nitish Kumar’s scheme of things. As the state government launched into implementation of the law, over 1.6 lakh people had been arrested by 2019 end, most of them released though. Among those arrested also included poor women and children besides a large number of scheduled caste and EBC men and women, most of them for consuming liquor. ‘From 45-year-old Maya Devi of Munger, a member of the Extremely Backward Bind caste who was the first woman to be convicted under the new prohibition law, to 65-year-old Hari Das, a Dalit farm worker in Motihari district, The Indian Express tracked the faces behind the fallout to piece together a tale of helplessness and despair. Maya’s son, Jitendra  a part-time auto driver: “After my father, who was handicapped, died a few years ago, my mother went to work in Punjab for a few months in 2015. After she returned, she started brewing mahua. When prohibition was enforced the next year, we warned her, but she said she had no other way to earn a living. Most people brewing illicit liquor here are widows, who are not trained to do anything else.” (17)

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Express investigation showed that Scheduled Castes accounted for 27.1 per cent of arrests while their share in population is just 16 per cent. Scheduled Tribes make up 6.8 per cent of those arrested but form only 1.3 per cent of the population. And the OBC share is 34.4 per cent of the arrests, and 25 per cent of Bihar’s population.The figures were compiled by senior jail officials under the Inspectorate of Prisons of Bihar’s Home department. Speaking to The Indian Express, a senior official in charge of a central jail said he received a text message from “headquarters” on March 12, asking for a category-wise social break-up — General, OBC, EBC, SC, ST — of all inmates detained under the prohibition law. The data was compiled and sent to the department by the eight jail circles as formal communication under their respective letterheads, officials said. (18)

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A 17 February 2020 verbal order of Patna High Court by Justice Anil Kumar Upadhyay in CWJC No 23 of 2020 in Koushal Kishor and others versus State of Bihar and others after termination of some guest teachers demanding pay parity in middle of state board’s Class 10 examination put a question mark on education system of the state.

 “…What is worrying this Court is not themanner in which petitioners have been condemned and theirservice has been discharged without compliance of Principle ofNatural but the resultant effect of such arbitrary action. Guestteachers were engaged to cater the crying need of education onaccount of the acute shortage of Teacher. It appears thateducation system in the State of Bihar has gone worst and noone is serious about the problem of the education system. Itappears that the system is only spoiling the future generation asonly formality of school education is done in this State. Thesystem cannot be improved, so long the officials are allowed toeducate their wards outside the State of Bihar. The system canonly be improved if all the officials of the State are compelled tokeep their wards in the Government run Educational Institutions only then the officials will see the upliftment of the standard ofeducation. Quality instruction by qualified and dedicated teacheris a sine qua non of improvement in the educational system.The purity of the examination depends upon the quality ofinstruction imparted. The poor people have no option but tosend their wards to join Government run Educational institution...” (19)

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But here are some data that should tell that Nitish Kumar, the ‘turnaround man of Bihar in comparison to Lalu’ had been short of real development. The figures are revealing and telling. Sikkim is the best-performing state with 99 per cent of schools having an ideal pupil-teacher ratio. In comparison, only 21.75 per cent schools in Bihar meet the target (NITI Ayog, SDG India – Index Dashboard (2019-20, Page -65, para-9). Among the states, Himachal leads with 39.70 per cent in terms of female labour force participation. In comparison, Bihar stand stands at 2.8 per cent. (NITI Aayog, SDG India – Index and Dashboard (2019-20), Pager-79, para 7). At 39.73 per cent, Bihar has the highest percentage drop-out rate at secondary school level. (NITI Aayog, SDG India – Index Dashboard (2019-20), page-65, para-6). The percentage of children under five years of age are stunted is the highest in Bihar at 42 per cent. (Niti Aayog, SDG India – Index and Dashboard (2019-20), page-41, para 2). As per Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) data, Bihar is at 21st position in terms of human development index in the country, 14 in the life expectancy, second last in women literacy percentage, third bottom in maximum drop-out at primary school levels. The state is among three states having worst poverty ratio.

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But there are stories of hope – one such coming out from Haj Bhavan in midst of state capital. A silent story of empowerment of Muslim boys and girls (yes, that is the news) is coming out slowly and steadily. As some 20 Muslim men and women in uniform wait eagerly for me to tell their stories of fighting their families, relatives and clergy to come this far, Bihar minority welfare department and home department additional chief secretary Amir Subhani said he would only add to their stories once they tell theirs.

As Haj Bhavan had seasonal use, the state government decided to start coaching (written, physical and mains) for Muslims candidates, who have either got enrolled at Haj Bhavan coaching centre after a screening test or have qualified PT or mains of police constable, sub-inspector, excise inspector or Bihar Public Services (BPSC) prelims or written. The scheme coming under Mukhymantri Alpsankhyak Siksha Yojana has been now extended to six district headquarters.As presence of Muslims in uniform services in Bihar is less than 2.5 per cent (as against their 17 per cent population), the idea is to give them boost and make them come out - more so for girls, the seemingly small government efforts looks to introduce a revolution in far-off villages of Kishanganj, Araria, Darbhanga, Vaishali, Muzaffarpur or Buxar.

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Meet Excise Police Constable Shabani Aazmi from Pipra, West Champaran, this geography graduate is the only Muslim girl from her village to come out and dared to take coaching at Haj Bhavan and return to the village in uniform to mixed atmosphere of joy, half-acceptance and disbelief of villagers. Shabana, who is good at English, has qualified for SI mains and has been working at Haj Bhavan, she has started her training. "Haj Bhavan is a life-changing experience. Very few believe that the state government is providing this almost free of cost. I am a proud Haj Bhavan product and so many are raring to become ones," says Shabana, adjusting her cap with sense of pride glowing on her face.

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Then, there is Rozy from Ara, who has become sub-inspector after coaching at Haj Bhavan, fighting resistance from society. Razia Sultana from Patna says even though her mother is a Patna High Court lawyer, she had to fight to take up job in uniform. Chanda Khatoon, posted as constable in Purnea, is from Atri, Gaya, in vicinity of Bihar’s mountain man Dasrath Manjhi’s village, says: "I had filled up form for constable examination without telling my family. It was only after I got a call from Haj Bhavan, I told my parents about my decision. My farmer father was elated even though most villagers did not like it." Rizwana Parveen, who has returned to Haj Bhavan as a trainer to new batches of students, is a constable with Darbhanga jail. Parveen, who has masters in psychology and is now pursuing doctorate in criminal psychology, recalls facing a very tough resistance from clergy. Among current batch of 150 students, 20 of them girls, preparing for their SI Mains, is Shaheen Firdaus from Valmiki Nagar, West Champaran. Her father, who was a small-time social worker with little income, has been in coma after being paralysed for seven months. Firdaus, working with a private bank earning barely Rs 10,000, is supporting her six siblings. “I want this uniform for pride. This is possible because of Haj Bhavan experience," she says.The stories of Muslim boys from their journey from village to Haj Bhavan was no less challenging. “Most villagers believed that it was a sheer waste of time to take coaching at a government set-up," says Haider with satisfaction of proving them wrong.

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Amir Subhani says Haj Bhavan has been running the coaching in most professional manner and has been expanding to districts slowly. “We want results, not numbers crowding. We are putting our money and efforts where results can come and people backing us believe in our efforts,” (20) says Subhani, one of key bureaucrats in Nitish Kumar team since his first term. Subhani says the idea came up in 2010 when the government believed Muslim boys and girls needed support and motivation to break the shackles. Bihar Administrative Service (BAS) officer Mohammed Rashid Hussain is the academic director of the coaching centre affiliated to Maulana Azad Arabic and Persian University. Bihar police Havildar Liyaqat Ali is police coach at the centre. The guest faculty includes renowned mathematics and reasoning teacher Shagir Ahmed and CBP Srivastava, president of Centre of Applied Research in Governance, and Constitution and polity expert. As Rashid Hussain shows around the coaching centre, it did come as a pleasant surprise to see big coaching halls, rest rooms with beds with mattresses in centralized air-conditional set-up, a big reading room, a rich library, a well-maintained dining hall and more importantly a separate prayer hall for girls, something not available at most mosques. The entire common place is put under CCTV surveillance. “Haj Bhavan is a brand," sums up Khusboo from Buxar, a new batch student. “This effort is to change mindset of mullahs," says the girl profusely thanking coach Harun Sir and warden Bilkis Bano. So far, over 500 Muslim boys and girls have got jibs in police services and BPSC.

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But the number is not important, the change in attitude is.

(Excerpted from From JP to BJP with permission from the author Santosh Singh) 

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REFERENCES:

1. Interview/ Munna Sarkar, close aide of Nitish Kumar during his formative years as a politician

2,3 & 4: Interview/ Biresh Sinha, an organizer of Kurmi Chetna rally and former secretary of Bihar Veterinary Association

5.Interview/ MLC and Information and Public relations department minister Neeraj Kumar

6. Interview/ Bihar deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi

7. Interview/Bihar CM Nitish Kumar

8. Interview/ Sushil Kumar Modi

9. The Telegraph https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/jharkhand/madam-too-lame-call-us-sir-women-members-of-panchayat-samiti-want-an-expression-of-power-parity/cid/711079)

10. The Indian Express (http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/nitish-surely-pm-material-bjp-s-sushil-kumar-modi/996887/)

11. Interview/ Former MP Shivanand Tewary

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12. Interview/ Bihar deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi

13. Interview/ Bihar CM Nitish Kumar

14. The Telegraph (https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/20-lives-for-powerless-poles/cid/971588)

15. Interview/ Pratyaya Amrit, principal secretary, Bihar disaster management department

16. The Indian Express

(https://indianexpress.com/article/india/where-prohibition-has-a-silver-lining-safer-homes-more-money-nitish-kumar-liquor-ban-5196489/).

17. The Indian Express ((https://indianexpress.com/article/india/prohibition-in-bihar-nitish-kumar-widows-and-elderly-jailed-children-picked-up-for-ferrying-liquor-5194979/)

18. The Indian Express (https://indianexpress.com/article/india/bihars-prohibition-crackdown-two-years-later-obc-ebc-sc-st-face-brunt-nitish-kumar-liquor-ban-5193755/)

19. A 17 February 2020 verbal order of Patna High Court by Justice Anil Kumar Upadhyay in CWJC No 23 of 2020 in Koushal Kishor and others versus State of Bihar

20. Interview/ Additional chief secretary (home) Amir Subhani

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