Dubbed as “Lord Turnaround” for having brought the state “back from the dead”, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s developmental agenda is widely believed to be the secret of his success. Arun Sinha’s new political biography of his ambitious classmate from college is a sympathetic rather than critical analysis of Nitish’s career. But it does throw up some important questions. Like, has the issue of development replaced caste-based politics in the Hindi heartland? Have electoral compulsions reduced development in this region to handouts? Sinha argues that Nitish took the institutional route to remove poverty instead of the handout route, but still wonders whether roads and bridges alone can lead to development. The book is also about the clash of castes in Bihar and Nitish’s attempt to wrest the social justice agenda from Laloo Prasad Yadav.
The son of an unsuccessful Congressman who earned a living as an ayurvedic vaid, Nitish had always been keen to enter politics, even as an engineering student. Sinha portrays him as a stolid, hardworking, articulate introvert, compassionate towards his enemies. Like Laloo Prasad, Sushil Kumar Modi and Ravi Shankar Prasad, Nitish started his career as a student leader in the mid-1960s, with its rising anti-Congressism and mobilisation of backward castes. He was strongly attracted to Lohia’s socialism and his formula of ‘sainkra saath’—sixty per cent representation for backwards, tribals, women and minorities.
Nitish began his political career in 1969 as a member of the Socialist Youth Council, a front of Lohia’s ssp. Later, he worked as a student leader in the Patna Science College. It was the Bihar movement of 1974, and under the Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti leading to the JP movement during the Emergency, that catapulted Nitish to the state level.
Nitish sacked the corrupt, improved efficiency and ensured implementation of policies to set up a public-spirited system.
But for Nitish, despite the decline of the Congress and mobilisation of backward castes in Bihar, the 1980s were a period of intense struggle and often despair. Caught in the inter-caste rivalries of the time, it was only after two defeats that he won a parliamentary election in 1985. Despite his victory in the 1989 assembly elections, Nitish helped make Laloo CM. But from the mid-1990s, he directed his efforts towards ending Laloo’s corrupt regime. It was only after the 2005 elections that Nitish succeeded in becoming chief minister, thanks to his new caste alliance of the upper castes, Kurmis, Dalits and lower backwards. Sinha plays up the contrast between the two fellow-travellers turned trenchant rivals: Laloo Prasad the talker and Nitish the doer.
So, has Bihar been reinvented? And in what direction? Nitish’s victory for a second term in November 2010 was due to the visibility and impact of his development/welfare policies. Things like the construction of roads, girls riding bicycles to school, improvement in law and order, including speedy trials, the functioning of the police and health centres, and conviction of criminal dons had an impact on voters’ minds. Nitish also identified the most deprived among the Scheduled Castes through a Mahadalit Commission, established self-help groups, released funds for education and provided women with 50 per cent reservation in panchayats.
One reason why Nitish succeeded in making these changes is because he refused to follow the practice of earlier chief ministers who insisted on removing all bureaucrats from the posts they held under their precedessors. Instead, he removed only the corrupt officials. He tried to improve efficiency and ensure implementation of policies, making an attempt to transform governance from a mai-baap sarkar into ‘sushasan’—a public-spirited, professional system. While land reform was not possible, he did try to improve agriculture through the ‘2008 Road Map for Agriculture and Allied Sectors’. His second term has infused some confidence in the new social climate and perhaps industry will now enter Bihar. Equally important was his move to set up weekly janata durbars in which he could reach out to the people and try to resolve their grievances. All these steps restored Bihari pride, sense of well-being and security.
Nitish’s growth story is important not just for Bihar but for other backward states looking for direction. Official statistics point to an increase in the GDP between 2005 and 2009. More importantly, there has been no negative growth due to high public expenditure, resource mobilisation, deficit management and improvement in law and order. But growth remains skewed and uneven, limited to trade, hotels, construction and communication. Bihar has a long way to go as yet, but Nitish helped it walk again. There’s much to do before Bihar starts running; time alone will tell if Nitish can do it.