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CURRENT AFFAIRS  
BIHAR POLL
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 43, Dated October 30, 2010
CURRENT AFFAIRS  
BIHAR POLL

THE LORD of NEW THINGS

There Is No Blood

An election in Bihar is normally bad news. The three Cs, cash, crime and caste, are still there but the big D, development, is taking it away this time. An extraordinary story from a state we have no faith in

BY VIJAY SIMHA

No guns, all roses Nitish Kumar looks set to repeat the magic of 2005 in this yearís Assembly election

No guns, all roses Nitish Kumar looks set to repeat the magic of 2005 in this year’s Assembly election

PHOTO: AP

VIJAY SIMHA

THEY CAME rushing, about a hundred, with no fear of consequences. Yelping as they came, they forced Inspector Vipin Kumar Singh into motion. Singh was in a sulk. Here he was, two years in Darbhanga, north Bihar, becoming gradually unimportant. Today was his biggest day in a long time and it didn’t look like he was enjoying it. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was on an election tour, making a pitch in the Assembly poll, and Singh watched as the horde of young boys ran towards the chief minister’s dais. “You have become too bold,” he snapped as he dragged a teenager away by the collar. This was the scariest moment for Singh in a whole month. He was disgusted. No dons. No bombs. No bullets. No guns, at least not yet. No bodies. He couldn’t remember a spell like this when peace threatened his existence. This was Bihar in election time. And all he was doing was keeping children from getting too close to the chief minister. What on earth was going on?

THIS IS a benchmark election for a few reasons. One, it is the first after the delimitation of Bihar. The whole state has been reorganised into new constituencies. Second, it is the first election where the state government is not a matter of contempt at the national level. It has, on the contrary, generated goodwill. Three, people have an opportunity to clinically examine the actual development that has taken place. Development has gone beyond the realm of the esoteric now. The electorate has not had this luxury, over the past 16 years, of making an assessment of the work done by a government,” says Shaibal Gupta, one of Asia’s most incisive minds, and Member-Secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute, a premier think tank based in Patna.

Over the past few decades, Bihar has been an embarrassing political role model. Politicians showed no respect for work. They tended to hire hitmen to scare people into submission. Almost everyone swore by caste. Caste gangs used to be formed who called themselves private armies. An election meant murder and mayhem. No one likes a story from Bihar, especially if it included politicians as it almost always does. Into this ocean of ill will came Nitish Kumar. He was chief minister for seven days in 2000, barely months before a new state of Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar. He had to quit primarily because he couldn’t buy himself a majority in the House. Nitish came back in 2005 at the head of a coalition government and this is his attempt at getting another term as chief minister.

Bihar has 243 Assembly constituencies and is one of India’s more politically important states. In the past, Bihar had one of the world’s oldest centres of learning in Nalanda. Buddhism was born here and one of India’s greatest empires, the Maurya Empire, took shape here.

THE MAKING OF A LEADER
Nitish Kumar began early, stayed the course, and is now at a peak

THE CHIEF MINISTER

2000 Chief Minister of Bihar for the first time

2000 Resigned after seven days when he couldn’t prove his majority

2005 Elected Chief Minister of Bihar for the second time

2010 Heads NDA campaign in Assembly election, seeking another term as CM

THE UNION MINISTER

1990 Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Cooperation

1999 Union Minister for Surface Transport

2000 Union Minister for Agriculture

2001 Union Minister for Railways

THE STUDENT POLITICIAN

1971 Became member of Ram Manohar Lohia’s youth wing, Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha

1974 Joined the JP movement, arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act

1975 Arrested during the Emergency

1989 Secretary-General, Janata Dal, Bihar. Elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time

THE ENGINEER

1970s Studied local, at the Bihar College of Engineering, Patna

1970s Learned about precision and how to apply information

1970s Science taught him to be impersonal and always weigh the pros and cons

1970s All this helped him deal with the science of Railways as a Union minister

Today, Bihar has the third largest population among Indian states and provides much of India’s cheap labour force. Close to an astonishing 59 percent are below the age of 25. And they have a news television channel called Maurya. The state also has probably the highest number of migrants, most of who return only during festivals.

In the outgoing Assembly, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) has 87 members, and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has 55. Together, they form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Over the past five years, this partnership has been one of the more stable political combinations in India. Lalu Prasad’s left-leaning Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the principal opposition party to the NDA, has 54 members in the outgoing Assembly. Two other notable parties, the Congress, and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), have nine and 11 members. Voting is in six phases, on 21, 24 and 28 October, and 1, 9, and 20 November. The result is to be announced on 24 November.

The story of this Bihar election is the story of Nitish Kumar. Nitish is 59, close to six feet tall. Unlike many peers, he does not colour his white hair. Mostly, he sports stubble. He is slim and has a paunch. He uses spectacles to read. His biggest asset is his mind. Sharp, clear, precise, devoid of emotion. In a roomful of people, he is rarely outthought. Twenty-five years ago, he was first elected to the Bihar Assembly. He was already a socialist and an engineer, shouting slogans with, of all people, Lalu Prasad.

People who have been in meetings with Nitish are struck by his attention to detail. Probably he developed a trust of detail when he studied engineering, where everything is built on precision. This allows him to be on top of numbers that would ordinarily numb most people. Because of this, Nitish gains respect from the bureaucracy. This is a sharp contrast to his rival Lalu Prasad, who lives by instinct and has no concept of detail.

The first thing Nitish did was to get the police going. The campaign against criminals put 50,000 people in jail at one point. It became the stuff of legend

Then, there is a broad interest in most things barring cricket. Nitish can’t stand cricket and has particular contempt for the T20 version of the game. But in all things administrative, he is king.

Curiously, Nitish is probably the only chief minister of Bihar who came to Patna after years in the Union government. Bhagwat Jha Azad had done a stint at the Centre, a forgettable one, before he became chief minister for a short while in the late 1980s. But Nitish has had substantial stints in New Delhi.

“Because of his long stint in the Central government, his cognitive world is wide,” says Shaibal Gupta. “That gave him exposure. His benchmark changed. He was no longer interested in small things unlike Lalu, whose cognitive world is different. Nitish will think big. He will try to create institutions. Nitish is a leader. He is some sort of a subaltern Nehru.”

Breaking the mould Despite the alliance with the BJP, Nitish has managed to woo Muslims

Breaking the mould Despite the alliance with the BJP, Nitish has managed to woo Muslims

PHOTO: VIJAY PANDEY

All this makes him trust others less. So, he likes to work most things by himself. He has a system in which he operates. Such an outlook is important for a state, especially one so enfeebled by Lalu. The first thing Nitish did was to get the police going. His impersonal air was invaluable as he went around ordering a crackdown. In the streets of Bihar, this took on the air of legend. In smaller towns today, girls on bicycles are seen more often than men with guns. The campaign against criminals put 50,000 people in jail at one point.

Incredibly, most of Bihar so far has stayed away from the gun in this election campaign. Most campaigns have become routine affairs where children, the old, and the women collect. Nitish arrives usually on time and there are barely a dozen people on the dais with him. It’s all matter of fact. There’s a sense of freedom in the air.

Nitish uses this well. He is comfortable as he walks into election meetings. His style is chatty. “The first time, I went after criminals. Next, it will be the turn of the corrupt,” he says in every speech. He connects each time he mentions how the criminals are in jail. The women understand because it has made life easier for them. The forward castes understand because it has opened up business opportunities for them. They now visit villages freely where they couldn’t set foot in without having to pay the dons. The backward castes understand because they are no longer targeted. And so on.

But it’s when Nitish talks of gunning for the corrupt that he is really talking. He floated a Bill called the Bihar Special Court Bill in 2008. He got the Bihar Assembly to pass it the same year. After this, the Bill was sent to the Centre in March 2009 for clearance. The presidential assent came just months ago and Nitish is going to town. The Bill empowers an investigating agency of the state government to confiscate immovable property of a public servant, whether IAS or IPS officer, if the agency finds prima facie evidence about such an officer’s earning through corrupt or illegal means.

Caste away Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan are both on the backfoot this time

Caste away Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan are both on the backfoot this time

PHOTO: SONU KISHAN

IT IS the only Bill of its kind in India. The officers in New Delhi sat on the Bill for almost a year before they cleared it. On paper, the Bill takes the fight against corruption to a new level. Thus far, even if someone was found guilty of corruption, property could not be seized. Nitish’s Bill also empowers the state government to set up special designated courts in districts to try corrupt public servants on the line of fast-track courts trying gangsters and dons. The Bill allows an investigating agency to confiscate an official’s immovable property after lodging a case against him. The agency may return the property to an accused with 5 percent interest if he was proved innocent during the final trial. In Bihar, this could be dynamite if implemented well.

Corruption trials can be notoriously lengthy because it is difficult to prove corruption. There are millions of ways to justify wealth but if an officer is found corrupt, then this Bill is pretty much revolutionary. Nitish loves it. “I live for the day when I can seize a corrupt official’s palatial bungalow and convert it into a school for poor children,” he says almost every time. And each time, the line is a hit. Justice is a powerful concept and many Biharis are beginning to think Nitish might deliver here as well, just like he cleaned up the streets.

For instance, dons like Mohammed Shahabuddin of Siwan, Rajesh Ranjan aka Pappu Yadav of Purnea, Akhlaq Ahmad, Sunil Pandey and Rajen Tiwary of Bhojpur are all out of circulation. Some cannot contest elections because they have been convicted for more than two years. The others are out of sight and out of mind. This makes sense to people who have heard Lalu and Rabri Devi for years without seeing anything improve in their lives. Nitish uses this for the kill. He rarely calls Lalu or Rabri Devi by name, simply referring to them as pati-patni, the husband and wife. Each time Nitish says patipatni, there’s a howl of laughter. “You gave the talkers 15 years. Can’t you give the doers another five years?” he asks. Yes, they shout. It’s almost like Nitish and the people have genuinely agreed on something.

STUFF LIKE this makes it difficult for parties like the Congress, the RJD, and the LJP. Perhaps wisely the Congress has chosen to pick on Nitish on development funds and not performance. So, there is this unusual debate on who should get the credit for the development work that’s been done in Bihar. This is such a departure from the usual bile that it’s fun to hear them squabble on numbers, budgets, allocations, expenditure, etc.

Nitish is probably the only chief minister of Bihar who came to Patna after years in the Union government. Because of this, his cognitive world is wide

The Congress sent in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on a rare trip to Bihar. Singh came and delivered a speech in northeastern Bihar. He was prime ministerial. He asked people to think about which party is improving their lives. And then he waved. Right arm extended, just below chest level, moving from right to left. It was like a cricket umpire signalling a boundary. In contrast, Nitish is at his most comfortable. It would be a major upset if he didn’t get another term and he knows it. He smiles, he chats. He becomes one of them, for a brief while shedding his famed formal air.

With only nine members in the outgoing Assembly, the Congress would consider it a big victory if it can reach 20. This could mean something only if there’s a hung Assembly and if every member counts. So, at best, the Congress is aiming to improve, not unsettle anything. The RJD, though, has a different stake.

Lalu is in his 60s. If he loses this election, he could be a step closer to obliteration. He still has people who will trust him but that percentage of voters does not appear to be growing. Rabri Devi can barely contribute positively and that doesn’t help. The basic problem they face is that they are not comfortable with the new rules that Nitish is writing.

Some of these new rules of politics for a new Bihar are:
• There will be nothing communal said or done;
• There will be no family;
• There will be no godfathers;
• There will be no criminals;
• There will be no moneybags; and
• There will be thought and action.

‘The first time, I went after criminals. Next, it will be the turn of the corrupt,’ he says at rallies. He connects each time he mentions how the criminals are in jail

The approach of Nitish and the BJP towards each other is a big selling proposition. For instance, neither the JD(U) nor the BJP put the other down publicly in Bihar.

There has been no discord in the state making it a rare NDA government that ran smoothly. Nitish uses this to keep LK Advani and Narendra Modi away as much as he can. The BJP realises that Nitish is its best bet and so it lets Nitish campaign mostly for the NDA. It works. At least so far, Nitish has defanged the BJP.

Hard times Keyho says Nagaland has lost its way due to corruption and laziness; the NNC flag (right)

Going it alone Sonia Gandhi has a struggle on her hands to revive the Congress’ fortunes

PHOTO: KANINI BALA

Having no family to plug for is also working hugely for Nitish. He is probably the only Bihar chief minister in many years to be free of family interests in politics. It makes him look almost saintly in comparison with the RJD and other parties. Lalu doesn’t look good here. In addition, Nitish is a famously self-made politician. Though Lalu is one too, Nitish somehow comes off better because of an overall perception that he is clean. He has no criminals around him, something that Lalu is unable to match. Even in the thought and action department, Nitish is ahead. These are the new benchmarks. This is Nitish territory.

All this, though, is not guarantee that everything is hunky dory. NK Chaudhary, professor of economics in Patna University, believes that Nitish is part of the old school. A shade better than Lalu but not the solution to Bihar’s problems. “See, the first suspicion I had was with the 11 percent growth rate figures 10 months ago. It was too good to be true, especially when agriculture was not doing well in Bihar. Now, they have scaled it down. Things have marginally but definitely improved with Nitish. But, Bihar is starting from a low base and everything looks big. In the health sector, the improvement has actually tapered off. Roads have become a little better. Since all religions need roads, this is helping Nitish,” says Chaudhary.

“But, only the Left Front is talking about land reform and the concept of common school. There is no alternative to land reform in Bihar. You can’t even develop a capitalist economy without land reform. I think that Nitish’s clear edge has become an unclear edge,” adds the professor.

THERE IS also the thought that the voters of Bihar might still unseat Nitish. It would require a massive hush-hush mobilisation to defeat Nitish without him learning of it. That doesn’t seem to be happening, but people tend to become neutral in a long-drawn voting schedule. There is absolutely no saying what will play on the minds of voters as they face the EVMs a month after the first votes were cast. So, there are a few broad concerns but in the absence of a real rival, and because of his work, Nitish is at the head of the race.

Hard times Keyho says Nagaland has lost its way due to corruption and laziness; the NNC flag (right)

Crowd-puller Nitish’s popularity has soared thanks to the improved law and order situation

PHOTO: VIJAY PANDEY

It was nice to see a chief minister of Bihar talk in such detail about clean fuel, for instance. At his party’s manifesto release function, Nitish spoke for almost 30 minutes on the need to make ethanol in Bihar. He laid out his argument in such detail that it seemed like he was in an extended Cabinet meeting. In the end, the media, which barely understood a word of what Nitish was saying, pleaded with him to end the event. There was so much ethanol in the air that it would have had businessmen in Maharashtra and Gujarat salivating at the prospects in Bihar. Nitish was pure chief minister. You could sense that he could deliver for a desperate state.

There is so much poverty that it will take a 100 good men working together to pull Bihar out of the mess. Nitish has the ability and understanding to fix this

ANOTHER INSIGHT into how Nitish works comes from the planned Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) centre in Bihar. The AMU had written to Nitish in 2008 asking for land to set up an AMU centre on 100 acres in Katihar, a district with a large Muslim population in the northeast of Bihar. Nitish said he thought about it, and wrote back saying Kishanganj, a district adjoining Katihar, was desperately in need of a boost in the education sector. He said he told AMU he would give 250 acres in Kishanganj. “We need it there. Also, AMU runs a school along with a university. I need a school and a university in Kishanganj. Therefore, I offered 250 acres,” Nitish said. His eyes begin to glow when he gets into details of projects. It’s a world he loves. He is in control here. Working on plans. Not on PR.

Five years is not a lifetime. Before we know it, there will be another election in Bihar. Now, in 2010, there’s a 1970s air to the election. Simple things like curbing crime and corruption are believable promises. There is so much poverty that it will need a hundred good men working together to pull Bihar out of its mess and give it a life of dignity. Nitish has the understanding and the ability to listen and learn. He has resurrected the NDA in Bihar. In doing so, he has come alive. Bihar, though, is another thing. It's worth dying for.


vijay.simha@tehelka.com

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 43, Dated October 30, 2010
 

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