Nitish Kumar: runaway winner as person of the year (Comment)

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS
Friday, December 31, 2010

In the season of scams when political reputations are at their lowest ebb, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar stands out as a remarkable exception. His emergence as a front-runner in a field crowded with seemingly redoubtable figures like Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi, Naveen Patnaik, Rahul Gandhi, et al, is all the more noteworthy because of his quiet, unassuming persona.

Yet, by winning a resounding electoral mandate, he has been unequivocally hailed by vox populi as their choice as the person of the year.

The extraordinariness of Nitish Kumar’s feat is demonstrated by the unbelievable turnaround that he has brought about in Bihar’s social and economic scene. Needless to say, his political success is based on this transformation.

The result is that he has proved beyond all doubt that if a politician uses the official and political power in his hands for the betterment of ordinary people’s lives, he becomes virtually unbeatable.

India will be a much improved country if this simple lesson provided by Nitish Kumar is widely emulated. And at no time is there a greater need for such emphasis on the fundamental requirements of the people than in the present murky atmosphere when, as Sonia Gandhi has said, the country’s “moral universe” has shrunk.

Except, perhaps, in Bihar where the incarceration of 40,000 criminals and anti-socials, and the fall in the number of abductions from 1,390 to 315, have largely restored the common man’s faith in the administration’s clout and goodwill. In a country where the parties are not averse to employing goons as cadres, the chief minister has shown that he means business.

As a result, there has been a 45 percent surge in automobile sales because people are no longer afraid of travelling alone and with women and children. Besides, they can afford to remain out after nightfall unlike in the past when the roads became deserted and the haunts of criminals.

But it isn’t the improved law and order situation alone which has encouraged greater outdoor excursions. There has also been a vast improvement in the condition of roads with the restoration and construction of nearly 7,000 km of highways and 1,500 bridges, including 300 elevated ones.

Much of this work was done by a public sector undertaking, which was able to overcome its earlier deficit of Rs.17 crore to contribute Rs.20 crore for relief to the Kosi flood victims. But no less noteworthy than its good work was the subsequent promotion of a young officer in its charge to a larger road construction department, which underlined the chief minister’s ability to spot and reward talented bureaucrats.

At the same time, he has been ruthless in the matter of initiating action against officials found guilty of corrupt practices by fast-track courts and housing schools in their confiscated properties.

Since these measures have improved the investment climate, it is not surprising that Bihar’s current growth rate of 11.3 percent has become comparable to Gujarat’s. For the present, however, this upward trend can be ascribed to the fact that shops and commercial establishments can remain open till late at night, which was not possible during the days of the so-called ‘jungle raj’.

The phrase was earlier derided as political hyperbole, but not after the return of normalcy in daily life.

Apart from law and order, Nitish Kumar has focussed on the education sector with the employment of 235,000 teachers at the primary and secondary levels to reduce the teacher-student ratio from the present dismal 1:73. The provision of uniforms and cycles to girls has also been an attractive feature of his policies.

The chief minister has now turned his attention to higher education with his proposal to set up the Nalanda university to recall its glorious heritage. For this purpose, he has selected Amartya Sen and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as patrons. His allocation of 250 acres to Aligarh Muslim University has been seen as a step to appease the minorities, but by now his reputation among the Muslims is secure enough to preclude such obvious palliatives.

His success in winning the support of the Muslims despite having the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a partner is based on a no-nonsense approach to communal relations where he hasn’t allowed his ally any leeway at all. In this respect, Nitish Kumar has shown how stern he is compared to Naveen Patnaik, who looked on helplessly as the anti-Christian riots fuelled by the saffron camp raged in Orissa in 2008, compelling him to snap ties with the BJP.

In contrast, Nitish Kumar showed the firm, uncompromising side of his character when he refused to let Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi, with their less than favourable image among the Muslims, to set foot in Bihar even to campaign for their own party, the BJP.

Nitish Kumar’s success via these steps in weaning sizeable sections of the Muslims from Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress undoubtedly contributed to his electoral triumph, as did his reaching out to the so-called Mahadalits to undercut the support base of Ramvilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) among the Dalits.

His focus on the extreme backward castes (EBCs) also helped him by widening the distance between them and the other backward castes (OBCs), who constitute the RJD’s vote bank.

But these sectarian ploys, which used to be the staple of Hindi heartland politics, are only sub-plots where the main storyline in Bihar is concerned. The latter relates to development and law and order - the two planks that have turned Nitish Kumar into a larger-than-life figure. If he carries on in this vein, he can become Bihar’s best-ever chief minister.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

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