Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Stealth Revolutionary

He is slowly turning beleaguered Bihar around and may succeed in making Lalu Yadav look like a political pygmy. AJIT SAHI analyses why Nitish Kumar is suddenly in demand

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Photos: AP

THE LOCALE is, well, historic. It is Bihar’s central district of Vaishali, around where the Buddha spent much of his public life two and a half millennia ago. Circa April 2009, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar takes to the microphone at a public meeting during the ongoing Lok Sabha elections and begins with his standard opening question, confidently anticipating the people’s response, having asked the question without fail at every election rally for days.

“I am sure you remember the Bihar of the last three years and the Bihar of the 15 years before that. Which Bihar do you want? The earlier one?” he asks an audience of about 2,000 cheering constituents. He is, of course, referring to the three plus years of his rule since becoming chief minister in November 2005, and the preceding 1990- 2005 rule of his once comradeturned- bitter-foe, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and his wife, Rabri Devi. It is surprising, say seasoned journalists on the chief minister’s trail this election, how categorically the people responded everywhere, their arms going up, screaming: “No, no, no, no!”

“Nitish Kumar’s administration is historic because it is remarkably clean, efficient and pro-people,” says OP Sah, a Patna-based industrialist who headed the Bihar Chamber of Commerce until last December. Gushes Harivansh, the chief editor of Prabhat Khabar, a Hindi newspaper reputed as anti-establishment: “The Hindi heartland hasn’t seen a chief minister like him. He has given hope to a people mauled by decades of misrule.”

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Photos: MANISH SINHA
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Photos: SONU KISHAN
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Photos: SONU KISHAN
In the streets Nitish Kumar has found steady recognition for his administration’s fresh approach

The encomiums for Nitish Kumar need to be seen in the context of the fact that after the nearly 15 straight years of unbroken Lalu-Rabri rule, Bihar, a state of over five crore people, was left staring at utter industrial ruin; a devastated public infrastructure including roads and electricity; virtually non-existent public health and education facilities, especially for its vast rural masses; ghastly caste violence, mostly between the Lalu’s caste brethren Yadavs on the one side and the Rajputs or the Bhumihars on the other; and India’s most notorious crime graph as gangsters ruled the roost in the state, running parallel governments in its several lawless regions, with the police effectively neutered against them.

“It is not as if great development has already come to Bihar. Rather, Nitish Kumar’s biggest success lies in that he has been able to resurrect the state structure,” says commentator Shaibal Gupta of the Patna-based think tank, the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI). “This is the first ever attempt to consolidate the pillars of governance since the rise of the British rule in Bihar more than two centuries ago.”

NITISH KUMAR HAS QUICKLY BUILT AN IMAGE OF BEING AN EFFICIENT ADMINISTRATOR, UNLIKE LALU AND HIS WIFE, RABRI, WHO RARELY VISITED THEIR OFFICE

Many in Bihar believe that new political realities will be dramatically written once results of the current Lok Sabha elections are announced on May 16. On May 6, The Times of India front-paged a stunning prediction: that the Nitish-led NDA is expected to win 29 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats. This would be a huge leg-up for the NDA (of which the BJP is the junior partner in Bihar). In the outgoing Lok Sabha, this combine won a mere 11 seats. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United (JD-U), which only had six seats, is predicted to be the biggest winner this time as it is expected to emerge with close to 20 seats.

On the other hand, it is widely expected that Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) — which had the highest tally of seats, 24, from Bihar in the outgoing Lok Sabha — would be trounced. Indeed, the newspaper predicted that Lalu and his alliance with Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader, Ram Vilas Paswan, will be decimated to just six seats. Lalu himself betrayed his serious doubts about his own victory when he roared last week that there would be an “apocalypse” if he lost from the two seats that he is contesting: Saran and Pataliputra.

“Lalu Yadav has run his course in Bihar’s political history,” JD-U Rajya Sabha MP Shivanand Tiwari, the party’s spokesperson, told TEHELKA. “People here will not forget in a hurry how Lalu destroyed every single institution in Bihar.”

Of course, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi needed no newspaper to tell him what the ground reports from Bihar have strongly indicated: a rough patch ahead for the legendary Bihar leader. Gandhi set a cat among the pigeons on May 5 by announcing at a press conference in New Delhi that he thought that the “non-Congress” Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had “done well” in his state. A day earlier, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, a senior Congress leader, had openly wooed Nitish Kumar, claiming that the Bihar chief minister was open to switching to a partnership with the Congress party if the Congress-led UPA pips the BJP-led NDA in the Lok Sabha results and retains power in the Centre. “This is nonsense. Why should we leave the NDA?” JD-U’s Tiwari, however, told TEHELKA. In any case, Nitish Kumar would need to sacrifice his state government if he were to desert the BJP, as he does not have enough numbers alone for a majority. With another 18 months left in his fiveyear tenure, there is little incentive for Nitish to give that up for a partnership at the Centre, party insiders say.

NITISH KUMAR’s success in beginning Bihar’s turnaround in the three-and-a-half years he has been in power is largely credited to three factors, the most important of which is the control of organised crime. For a state whose politicians had long embraced as comrades-in-arms pathological killers and mafia dons running extortion and kidnapping rackets, Nitish Kumar surprised everyone by going after organised crime, no matter how highly connected.

Thousands of criminals were arrested and prosecutions launched. Fast track courts were set up across the state to conduct speedy trials through daily hearings to deliver justice quickly. In just the two years of 2006-08, Bihar’s courts convicted as many as 30,000 criminals — an unprecedented statistic marveled at by even the most hardened cynic in the state. Astonishingly, nearly 6,000 criminals were given life sentences, mostly in cases of murder. Even more stunning is that the courts have ordered nearly 90 death sentences since 2006.

IAS and IPS officers who condoned, encouraged or were simply ineffective against the criminal-politician nexus were shunted out, and officers with reputations of being upright were brought in, such as Home Secretary Afzal Amanullah and Director-General of Police DG Gautam.

‘THERE IS NO GREAT DEVELOPMENT BUT THE CM’S BIGGEST SUCCESS LIES IN RESURRECTING THE STATE STRUCTURE,’ SAYS COMMENTATOR SHAIBAL GUPTA

“Crime was at its worst across Bihar when we took power; one of our biggest achievements is that we took a firm grip on the law and order situation,” the chief minister told TEHELKA. “Earlier, people dreaded criminals. Now, the criminals fear the law and are on the run.”

According to Bihar’s Home Ministry, kidnapping for ransom has gone down from a high of 385 in 2001 to just 66 in the last year. In the same period, dacoities have more than halved from nearly 1,300 to just over 600.

“We sent out a clear message down to the lowest policeman across the state: build terror in the criminals and confidence in the people,” Home Secretary Amanullah told TEHELKA. “We decided we would make the gangsters realise that crime does not pay.” In the first four months of this year, the courts have convicted 4,500 criminals. Of these, more than 500 have been sentenced to life imprisonment. According to Amanullah, the administration decided to make life difficult for those convicted of crimes, by ensuring that they suffer a “lot of civic disqualifications” such as no passports and no ration cards.

Of course, the best public relations exercise for the Nitish administration was the conviction of Bihar’s five biggest criminal-politicians — Mohammad Shahabuddin, Pappu Yadav, Anand Mohan, Suraj Bhan and Munna Shukla, who were each handed out life sentences in murder cases. “The life of crime in Bihar is a thing of the past,” the Chief Minister grandly declares. “It is never going to come back.” Stories such as the following one have added to the people’s faith. A year ago, a JD-U MLA allegedly spent time in the bar of a five-star hotel in Patna but refused to pay up. The manager phoned the chief minister at home, who immediately ordered that the MLA be arrested.

The administration has also begun an effort to handle the massive corruption, especially in recruitment, such as in the police forces. According to the home secretary, the processes for selecting more than 11,000 constables and 2,000 sub-inspectors over two years ago were video-recorded to prevent foul play. “Not a single complaint of bribery was made by anyone,” says Amanullah.

THE SECOND step undertaken by the Nitish Kumar government right after it was installed was to begin the process of building public infrastructure, especially roads. “It would take me five hours to make the 55-km journey to a nearby town because the road hadn’t been repaired in 20 years,” says industrialist Kumar Krishna Prakash in the eastern district of Purnea. Since the new government rebuilt the road, Prakash now makes that journey in less than an hour.

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Photos: DEEPAK KUMAR
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Photos: AP
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Photos: SONU KISHAN
The base Kumar has wielded development to succesfully broaden his social coalition of upper castes, dalits and Muslims

JD-U leader Shivanand Tiwari says that under the Lalu regime, exams of the Bihar Public Service Commission to fill up statutory executive posts such as deputy superintendents of police and deputy collectors hadn’t been held for five years. “There are problems still,” says Tiwari. “There is money to build bridges but not enough engineers. Or not enough doctors and nurses.”

And thirdly, Nitish Kumar has quickly built an image of being a clean and efficient administrator, who works long hours — the “16-hour chief minister”, as commentator Shaibal Gupta calls him. Indeed, whereas Lalu and his wife, Rabri, rarely visited their office at the stately Old Secretariat, Nitish visits his office almost daily. According to many people who deal with him, the chief minister’s secretariat has a corporate-style approach. Purnea’s industrialist Prakash recalls how a friend donated Rs 11,000 to the CM’s flood relief fund, after the Kosi river swamped large parts of northeast Bihar, and called the secretariat when he didn’t get a receipt. “They were profusely apologetic and asked him to come over on a certain day,” recalls Prakash. “When he reached, he was warmly met and handed the receipt with more apologies for the delay.”

Until the code of conduct of the election commission came into force earlier this season, Nitish Kumar held janata durbars (meet-the-public-sessions) at his home every Monday, where people could walk up to him and air their grievances. In January, he also launched a ‘development march’ (vikas yatra) spending a total of one month in four phases in the rural areas, directly interacting with the poor. Says journalist Harivansh: “His experiment of the janata durbar has been very successful. It also made the administration more accountable to the people.”

THE SELECTION OF COPS WAS VIDEO-RECORDED TO PREVENT FOUL PLAY.‘THERE WAS NO COMPLAINT OF BRIBERY,’ SAYS AMANULLAH, THE HOME SECRETARY

AS SOONas he became chief minister in 2005 of India’s arguably most backward state, Nitish Kumar went on a spate of opening new educational institutions, including one for IT and another for management studies, and a medical college. In three years, attendance of doctors at rural health centres and at district hospitals has gone up. According to latest government statistics, the number of childbirths at government hospitals and healthcare centers has shot up. Nitish Kumar has also been open to criticism and quick to make amends. “There was a furore over a list of families below the poverty line (BPL) as it allegedly contained inaccuracies,” recalls Gupta. “Nitish Kumar quickly withdrew and ordered a fresh one made.”

The business community, too, believes in Nitish Kumar’s sincerity. Industrialist Sah recalls how Nitish abolished the statecontrolled Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee, which was supposed to monitor the auction of foodgrain but had become a den of corruption. A month after his government came to power, Nitish and his deputy, Sushil Kumar Modi, also the state’s finance minister, sat with the business community for a daylong ‘VAT panchayat’ and agreed to streamline the complex tax structure.

But perhaps the biggest efforts from Nitish Kumar have been at the level of providing for Bihar’s extremely backward communities and the Muslims. Some of his steps include:

50 percent seats reserved for women in panchayats, making Bihar India’s first state to do so

20 percent seats reserved in panchayats for extremely backward communities, including the belowsubsistence Musahars

Rs 700 crore allotment for building boundaries around Muslim graveyards to check encroachment

Rs 10,000 as a one-time scholarship for Muslim boys and girls who pass the matriculation examination in first division

Free cycles for rural schoolgirls

Rs 700 a year to pubescent girls to buy themselves decent dresses to wear when they come of age, as well as schoolbooks and bags

Mass recruitment of government school teachers

Nitish Kumar also set up two commissions, one for bringing the muchawaited land redistribution in favour of the poor, and the other for a ‘common school system’ whereby the children of the poor and the rich, and of all castes, necessarily study in the same schools. Both commissions have made recommendations. Pressure is now building on the government to begin implementing those recommendations.

NITISH HAS RESOLUTELY ENSURED THAT THE BJP KEEPS HINDUTVA OUT OF BIHAR, AND REFUSED TO LET NARENDRA MODI CAMPAIGN FOR THE NDA IN THE STATE

“Nitish Kumar has successfully worked out a strategy for the broadest possible social coalition by targeting the lowest rungs of the dalits, Muslims and the backwards,” says commentator Gupta of ADRI. “And he is using the lubricant of development to do so.” According to him, Nitish Kumar’s “broadest” social coalition includes the state’s upper castes of the Rajputs, Brahmins, Bhumihars and the Kayasthas, thanks to the alliance with the BJP; the dalits and the “Maha” dalits, and — despite his alliance with the BJP — the Muslims.

In fact, Nitish Kumar has actively courted Muslims throughout his rule. He must now hope that he has won a substantial number of them over to his side after reopening the trials of some of those accused of killing over 1,000 Muslims in the infamous Bhagalpur communal riots of 1989. One such accused, Kameshwar Yadav, who had been earlier freed for lack of evidence, was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. The chief minister also doled out lakhs of rupees as compensation for the families of those who had been killed in that violence two decades ago.

“Nitish Kumar realised that the leader of a multi-religious, multi-cultural society such as ours will necessarily have to be liberal,” says Razi Ahmed, the septuagenarian secretary of Patna’s Gandhi Museum. “Narrow-mindedness will not work.”

THE 58-YEAR-OLD electrical engineer’s journey to becoming chief minister of one of India’s most difficult states is riven with treacherous defeats and failures. In the year 2000, he suffered the humiliation of being chief minister for only a week and was forced to resign before facing a trust vote in the assembly because he could not muster the support of enough number of independent MLAs for his minority NDA government.

Even the assembly election held in February 2005 did not give him, or Lalu’s RJD, a majority, forcing a prolonged spell of President’s Rule on the state, which ended when elections were held again in October the same year, giving Bihar the dubious honour of being India’s only state where assembly elections were called twice in a calendar year.

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Photos: REUTERS
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Photos: AP
His turn After finally becoming chief minister in his fourth attempt, Nitish has proved to be a liberal leader in a state bereft of such examples

In fact, Nitish turned lucky only in his fourth attempt. In 1995, as a leader of the Samata Party, Nitish Kumar had been projected widely as a challenger to the RJD in Bihar, only to face a humiliating defeat that returned barely six MLAs in the 324- member Assembly. (Since Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar in the year 2000, the Bihar Assembly now has 243 seats.) Three years later, Nitish became a minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, moving from the agriculture to railways and returned to the Centre after a brief oneweek fiasco as Bihar CM in 2000.

It would, of course, be unfair to credit Nitish Kumar alone for the success of his coalition. A substantial part of that credit must also go to Lalu Prasad Yadav, who has single-handedly destroyed his own magical legitimacy acquired after becoming Bihar’s chief minister in 1990 for the first time, breaking the Congress party’s hold over the state forever. At the time, Lalu led the biggest possible coalition that included the Muslims, the dalits, and a range of the backward castes, as well as the Left forces. Then, both Nitish and Paswan supported him. In fact, such was Lalu’s popularity that under his leaderhip, the Janata Dal and its allies gained 53 of the (undivided) Bihar’s 54 Lok Sabha seats in the 1991 Lok Sabha election. “Lalu quickly built up as such a strong leader of the poor that he devoured all the radical Left parties,” recalls Gupta.

But Lalu’s dalliance with the criminals began right at the start, as he courted Pappu Yadav to help him secure the support of about 11 independent MLAs to prop his minority Janata Dal government of 1990. By the time Lalu was implicated in the multi-crore ‘fodder scandal’ of the mid-1990s, in which he allegedly siphoned off public funds from the government’s animal husbandry department, his social base had begun to shrink drastically. For the last 10 years, Lalu has laid claim only to the votes of the ‘MY (Muslim- Yadav) alliance’. This, too, commentators say, has been cracking in these elections.

By 1994, Nitish Kumar had split from Lalu. By 1998, he, along with fellow former socialist George Fernandes, had sided with the BJP, being among the very first parties to provide legitimacy to the party of Hindutva. The only charge of political impropriety that still sticks at Nitish is his continued support for the BJP. However, Nitish Kumar has resolutely ensured that the BJP keeps Hindutva out of Bihar. He refused to let the controversial and divisive Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, travel to Bihar to campaign for the NDA in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.

“Nitish Kumar is both a technocrat and a consummate politician,” says commentator Gupta. “Many of us believe that the Lok Sabha results this year will reflect what he has begun to do for Bihar.”

WRITER’S EMAIL
ajit@tehelka.com


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