How Nitish Kumar Transformed the Idea of Bihar as Its Chief Minister

03 October 2015

By 8 November 2015, in a little more than a month from now, Bihar, that has been serving as the front for what is touted to be the biggest political battle this year, would have elected a new state government. The elections, which will be held in five phases, are primarily being fought between the two major coalitions in the state: the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance and the Grand Alliance comprising Janata Dal [United], the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. In this excerpt from The Brothers Bihari, a revised and updated version of his earlier books, Sankarshan Thakur revisits the trajectory of Nitish Kumar, the present chief minister of Bihar and that of his predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav. Thakur sheds light on the changing landscape of the state and explores the significance of the upcoming elections for these two leaders, calling them “two of the most engaging political figures to emerge on the national scene over the last quarter century.”

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 percent receive electricity at home when supply flows. Forty-three percent of rural Bihar is still not connected to roads. Less than 10 percent are able to use modern banking, and the Internet barely a percent. A mere 7 percent live in concrete homes. Sixty percent possess mobile phones. That is how lopsided the lurch of development is. We could be talking about Haiti where, in 2012, only 10 percent had a bank account and 80 percent 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 double-digit 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. But Nitish’s decision to break with the BJP resulted in a setback to the process of building; politicking returned centrestage to Bihar after the summer of 2013, governance took a back seat. 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.

Of them, only Laloo Yadav endures. Laloo is probably the most charismatic leader Bihar has seen; and at the peak of his power in the mid-1990s, he seemed invincible. But like many a political giant heady on power, he let his hunger and arrogance get the better of him. 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. Personally, he indulged in misdemeanour so rampantly he eventually had to be excised from elections and public office. Even so, he remains a force to reckon with, a man who can still bugle the support of a substantial following. 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.

Sankarshan Thakur is the Delhi-based Roving Editor of The Telegraph, Calcutta.