Bihar was never at a loss for those who set out to build it. In the narrow firmament of Bihari consciousness, they make a clotted constellation of visionaries and builders, reformists and revolutionaries, Samaritans and messiahs. Srikrishna Sinha and Anugrah Narayan Sinha, JP and Karpoori Thakur, Ram Lakhan Yadav and Jagannath Mishra. They have either been forgotten, some mercifully, or live on in dust-ridden memorial halls and rent-a-crowd commemorations. Or in disregarded town squares as busts routinely shat upon by birds. For all the retrospective reputation they have come to acquire, the gifts of Bihar’s league of legends don’t add up to much.
Eighty per cent of Biharis have no access to toilets. A mere 16 and a few decimal per cent receive electricity at home when supply flows. Forty-three per cent of rural Bihar is still not connected to roads. Less than 10 per cent are able to use modern banking, and the Internet barely a per cent. A mere 7 per cent live in concrete homes. Sixty per cent possess mobile phones. That is how lopsided the lurch of development is. We could be talking about Haiti where, in 2012, only 10 per cent had a bank account and 80 per cent used cell telephony.
The depth of the poverty of these indices is best sensed by comparison to how they read till just a few years ago. These are vastly improved figures, buoyed by consistent doubledigit growth under Nitish. Bihar topped national gross domestic product (GDP) ratings in 2011-12 at 11.3 per cent and yet it had a glancing acquaintance with subsistence. At the pronouncement of the twelfth Five-Year Plan in December 2012, the state topped all Indian states with a growth rate of 10.9 per cent, a stellar achievement considering it was buried at 2.6 per cent in 2005. But even with lead ratings, Bihar struggled to match up; Nitish’s predecessors had accumulated Himalayan deficits over the decades.
Nitish Kumar with supporters at his hometown Bakhtiyarpur in 2013. Photo: Ravi S. Sahani/The India Today Group/Getty Images
Of them, only Laloo Yadav endures. He came pregnant with a magical promise and delivered hell. The unmaking of Bihar was not Laloo Yadav’s single-handed achievement, though. At that a whole gallery of rogues and duds had taken turns before him. But if Laloo inherited a mess in 1990, he contributed chaos to it, like a tornado visiting the ravages of a quake and mangling the remains. If history will judge him as singularly destructive, it will perhaps also be because he was so long at the job. Fifteen years. Not enough time to build Rome, but sufficient to devastate an already fragile masonry. But Laloo too debuted as saviour-messiah, remember? All through the early 1990s hope surged around him, until he took fright and leave of his obligations and caged himself in his palace of power, the very 1 Aney Marg which he started to believe was his for keeps.
There is a fragment of personal history to this two-storey faux Tudor bungalow set in a five-acre estate that gets its name from Bihar’s second governor, Madhav Shrihari Aney. My grandfather, Pushkar Thakur, was its last occupant before Srikrishna Sinha, Bihar’s first chief minister, moved in in 1949 and appointed the premises the official residence of the state’s chief executive. Pushkar Thakur was then welfare secretary of the state and lived on the ground floor. Justice Abhay Pada Mukherjee of the Patna High Court was on the first. Sepia prints of that time in the family albums show flowerbeds and rattan chairs set in rolling lawns. When I first went into 1 Aney Marg in 1992, quite unaware my ancestry had been part of it, Laloo had banished the flowerbeds and erected a cattle-shed, his cows grazed on the acreage.
A lot of Nitish’s constituency-building is smart cut-and-paste not yet finessed by a larger, or more novel, idea. The essential mode of political exchange remains a feudal play of spoils and gains. It all comes down to how Laloo and Nitish distribute election tickets. Through a very similar discourse: what’s the fix on castes, what combination is best, who’s loyal, who can win. The difference between the two is actually merely the distance between their personalities, not much more. A senior officer who has served both said of the fickleness of change, ‘It’s the same ground and material he is dealing with, the same politics, the same politicians, broadly the same civil servants. The contrast lies in approach and intent. Someone like Laloo could easily pervert tomorrow what Nitish has built.’
For thirty years, perhaps a little more, Nitish drifted in Laloo’s shadow. When triumph came his way, all Nitish had to do was snatch the prize that was a thing of Laloo’s crafting, the invincible arithmetic of Backwards, Dalits and Muslims.
More than 80 per cent of the vote Nitish lords over today—the JDU vote minus the BJP’s upper caste constituency—is what Laloo consolidated in the first place. What Nitish has done is to give that gift the truth of Louis Aragon’s surrealist maxim—the marvellous is the eruption of contradiction within the real. Nitish touched the contradictions in Laloo’s seed of empowerment, smothered the pulpit populism, and gave impetus to the governance chromosome. Where Laloo was happy to merely grandstand from the stage, Nitish burrowed himself and got down to the job at hand. There’s no better illustration of this than Bihar’s high annual growth figures during the Nitish years.
Laloo will quarrel with that. Nitish and governance, he has often asked, since when? All he is doing in the name of governance is self-aggrandizement—breaking the extremely backward castes and sections of backward Muslims away, creating new ranks of ‘Mahadalits’ within the Dalits, even nibbling away at the BJP’s urban upper-caste constituency with administrative sophistry. It’s a charge Laloo Yadav cannot help making as the chief opposition in Bihar. It’s a charge Nitish would heartily accept—what politician doesn’t build a constituency for himself? In 1995, Nitish’s first open challenge to Laloo, in fatal alliance with the CPI(ML), yielded less than 4 per cent of the Bihar vote; today, he has in excess of 25 per cent on his own. He is, much like Laloo, a political egg, hardboiled as they come.
But Nitish also brought to Bihar overdue corrections. For far too long, Bihar has remained a nationally accepted metaphor for a basket case: Bihar, off the map, irredeemably lost. You must be Bihari to feel the rough rub of it—an identity as allegory to mockery. Made in Bihar, manufactured defective. I have an indelible memory of a report on Bihar by Trevor Fishlock in The Times of London during the early 1970s. He called the state the sewer of India. The stench of it still hangs somewhere within me.
For far too long, Bihar has been symbolic of all manner of Indian ills—disparity and disease, maladministration, institutional breakdown, feudalism, casteism, wanton crime, endemic corruption, political profligacy, public cynicism. If you wanted a quick tour of the worst of India, you took a trip to Bihar. Generations of journalists, Indian and foreign, travelled to Bihar to embellish their state-of-India reports with its graphic inefficiencies. Sometime during the middle of Nitish Kumar’s first term as chief minister, that began to slowly change. He was named ‘Politician of the Year’ by several television channels, newspapers and society watchdogs after his first year in power; he kept winning that award year after year until it began to sound routine. The Economist, which had once called Bihar India’s armpit, paid tribute to Nitish’s helmsmanship in a report. The cheeky title said: ‘The Bihari Enlightenment: India’s most notorious state is failing to live up to its reputation.’ That eased some of the burden of Fishlock’s damning, though very apt, verdict of three decades ago.
Bihar will remain a keenly watched space, and not merely because of the forty seats it brings to the Lok Sabha. It will be watched for what becomes of Nitish Kumar, one of the most engaging political figures to emerge over the last decade.
Nitish’s political mien is strongly pro-minority and pro-underprivileged, positions that are under renewed, often furious, debate in the current political discourse . He advocates caution on land acquisition for urbanization or industrialization and would not have the state intervene on behalf of big money. He has a distinct and sharply nuanced position on how to deal with left-wing extremism, or Naxalism, which dictates the discourse in more than a third of India’s territory and has been flagged as the biggest internal security threat by the Manmohan Singh government. Nitish does not see it as an internal security issue alone. In successive discussions with political leaders in New Delhi he has argued that a police solution is no solution. Disruption of law and order may be a symptom of left-wing extremism, it is not the disease. The cure lies with politicians, not with policemen; with socio-economic reordering, not with arming the forces better. He is also likely, given his politics and his mindset, to take a different line on the causes and cures of terrorism in India and will probably take a more tempered view of India’s many troublesome neighbours.
Nitish is, by nature, a political negotiator, not a confrontationist. He may be firm about his convictions, but he is not ideologically doctrinaire. He stands opposed to foreign direct investment (FDI) in the multi-brand retail sector, but that may not be a calcified position. On the day in September 2012 that Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress pulled out of the Manmohan Singh government over FDI, Nitish announced at a rally in north Bihar that he would support any government that granted Bihar the economic benefits of a special category state, FDI or no FDI. Nitish does not follow a prescribed text, his manifesto is what he makes up as he goes along. Some months after that rally, having broken away from the BJP, Nitish announced ‘issue-based support’ to the UPA and became a stapled ally of the Congress. He raised many eyebrows with that move: a Lohia protégé holding hands with the dynastic Congress? But the Congress had held out the promise of taking Bihar closer to a special category regime of benefits; and Nitish could do with an ally in the election outing. Emaciated, the Congress was still worth a few percentage votes in Bihar that could prove critical, who knows? Was he angling to woo the Congress, his father’s political alma mater, closer? Or would Laloo trump him at that game?
India, as Bihar, is thrashing at a range of issues. Success or failure in dealing with them will determine how it fares in its pursuit of becoming a world player. Much promise lies attached to India internationally but it remains a nation in arrested leap. It must check many more boxes if it is to live up to those expectations and earn its place in the new world. Addressing acute and widening disparity, accommodating new social and political aspirations, finding a balance between development imperatives and human and ecological requirements, divining a route through the domestic and external security minefield, aligning India’s peculiar contradictions to global trends. All of these and more will constitute the challenge the country’s future leadership must meet.
Other than Bindeshwari Dubey, who served a truncated spell between 1985 and 1988, Nitish Kumar is the only Bihar chief minister to have come to the job with administrative stints in Central governments—minister for surface transport, minister for railways, minister for agriculture. There is evidence he is quietly tutoring himself for a larger role, although he remains craftily coy about admitting to any of that. He is the first Bihari leader to have displayed familiarity with carbon footprints and the urgent need to contain them.
He went to China on a trade trip in 2011, he received a parliamentary delegation from Pakistan in Bihar and then took a trip to that country, a rare outing for an Indian chief minister, during which he was feted all along as exemplar among subcontinental administrators. He became the only Indian politician since Partition to have spent more than a week touring Pakistan, to have run from Karachi to Taxila on the same trip.
He has been spreading his wings. He has acquired convening powers unprecedented in Bihar’s annals, over professionals and experts such as Amartya Sen, Meghnad Desai, President of the British Academy Nicholas Stern, Singaporean politician-statesman George Yeo, some of the best minds on developmental economics. Other clues have emerged to perhaps a larger ambition, a casting beyond the boundaries of Bihar. Slowly but consciously, Nitish has begun to acquire a more versatile armour than a Bihar chief minister might require, his own consiglieri. Men like N.K. Singh and Ambassador Pavan Varma, who chose to retire prematurely from the foreign service to join Nitish as culture adviser and de facto spokesman. Varma was India’s envoy to Bhutan when Nitish travelled there on an official visit in 2012. He was immediately taken by the Bihar leader. ‘He struck me as unlike most politicians I had come across,’ Varma told me, ’A keen, serious man who wanted to do things and do them the right way. He had ideas, a vision and, most important, a steely will to push them. I was mulling a book at the time spelling out a new manifesto for India, Nitish seemed to come closest to what I imagined a modern Indian leader to be.’
These are people of diverse pursuits and web-like networks; they open to Nitish a rainbow range of connections from industry to the arts, from economy and the environment to geopolitics and foreign policy. These could be the beginnings of a larger stage gathering shape at the back of Nitish’s mind. He will have you believe all he ever wants to do is to work for Bihar. Bihar is a diverse plate but he is making himself familiar with a cross section of concerns that he may be called upon to address in the time to come: global terrorism, energy security and environment, diplomacy and the diversifying demands of international protocol. He is a mover and an artfully stealthy one. Even when he appeared stagnant, an invisible speck locked in Laloo Yadav’s shadow, he was plotting where and how he would emerge from it and start to cast his own.
Many see Nitish’s decision to jettison the BJP on the Modi question as rooted in his own ambition to become India’s prime minister. They are probably right in believing that the desire exists—though Nitish has repeatedly rebuffed even the suggestion of it—but they may have erred in assuming Nitish and Modi are competing along the same timeline.
Modi is playing for the 2014 vote. Nitish is not. As a youngster, Nitish lost election after election, but persisted till he won and then never lost again. It took him ten years, four elections and an alliance with the ideologically antagonistic BJP to wrest Bihar from Laloo Yadav. He can be monumentally patient and work beaver-like to achieve his hour.
“It took him ten years, four elections and an alliance with the ideologically antagonistic BJP to wrest Bihar from Laloo Yadav”
In resolving to be on his own again, Nitish has probably brought himself to the most challenging bend in his career. He doesn’t yet possess a winner social coalition in Bihar. His provincial JDU offers no organizational match to the elaborate BJP network that backs Narendra Modi. The Gujarat chief minister has unleashed a cultish campaign blitz that the Bihar leader has neither the station nor the resources to compete with. Modi is roaring on the national stage, Nitish has sparked an argument from a far outpost. For the moment, he may just be content to play an ant crawling up the elephant’s snout and causing it to trip. But then, this is a battle Nitish has set himself to wage beyond the electoral contest of 2014, firm in the belief that his India narrative, the idea of India, which he likens to an echo of the Indian Constitution, will outlive the discordant one Modi has begun to spell out.