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Nitish Kumar: The Super CEO

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has turned the fortunes of the state around since he came to power in 2005. He has come down hard on corruption, has improved infrastructure and infused new life into a creaking state machinery

Published: Dec 27, 2010 06:38:17 AM IST
Updated: Dec 28, 2010 10:13:10 PM IST
Nitish Kumar: The Super CEO
Image: Reuters
Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister, Bihar

Driving through a maze-like slum in Patna in the thick of election campaigning last month, chief minister Nitish Kumar’s driver lost his way. He said he needed to stop to ask for directions to a particular colony.

“Don’t worry,’’ Kumar told him. “I have cycled through these lanes a thousand times in my younger days,” he told the driver while giving him directions to the venue.

Nitish Kumar not only knows Patna’s bylanes very well, he also keenly understands the intricate socio-political alignments and aspirations of his people. That knowledge has helped him to not only earn the trust of the people by lifting the standard of governance in the state but also rewrite the equations of identity politics in the state, the combination effectively crushing the political power of rivals Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan.

“The most obvious trait of Nitish Kumar in his younger days was the simple manner in which he lived, sharing a one-room shelter with a friend in Patna, and the amount of tireless groundwork he used to do in his constituency,” says Amar Ujala executive editor Arvind Mohan, who has known Nitish from his days with Jayaprakash Narayan.

“Nitish has always been a lone warrior. He had a vision for himself and he saw his ambition right through to the end. Lalu on the other hand was always surrounded by henchmen such as Mohammed Shahabuddin and his own family who also had a huge stake in the administration,” says Mohan.

Backward castes found a political voice and an apparent sense of empowerment under Lalu Prasad Yadav’s long rule, but those years also dragged the state into the dark pit of crime, violence and unremitting poverty. Murders were routine affairs and kidnapping-for-ransom was a lucrative industry ‘growing’ at about 15 percent every year. Bihar was virtually at the bottom of every development ranking until Nitish Kumar took charge in 2005.

The state’s economy grew an average 11.35 percent each year between 2004 and 2009, compared with 3.5 percent in the prior five years. In the past five years, social spending in the state rose from 30.5 percent to 41 percent of overall expenditure. The administration built 2,400 km of roads the last year alone, compared with just 415 km in 2004.

“When Nitish Kumar took over, he needed to — first of all — resurrect the state structure. Earlier, it was thought that every crime that happened in the state was choreographed from the power centre,” says academic Shaibal Gupta, a keen observer of governance in Bihar.

In order to make it clear that he meant business, Nitish Kumar first cranked up the criminal justice system. According to one bureaucrat, it took only a one-line administrative order which said that every FIR had to result in a chargesheet within 90 days and the police officer had to appear before court whenever asked to. The result: 54,000 criminals convicted in the past five years. The number of murders reported has fallen by three percentage points between 2005 and 2008.

Nitish Kumār was born in Bakhtiyarpur district and graduated in electrical engineering from the Bihar College of Engineering. Kumar and Lalu Yadav started their political careers together during the Jayaprakash Narayan movement in 1973-74. While Yadav was known as the crowd-puller, Kumar was a deft communicator who could explain to outsiders what the movement was about. The anti-Congress JP movement was largely a backward-caste driven one. Yadav represented the Yadavs and Kumar was the face of the Kurmis, a landowning, backward-caste people.

Yadav’s political fortunes rose meteorically. He became a Lok Sabha member when he was just 29. In 1990 he became the chief minister of Bihar and held on to power either by himself or by proxy for 15 years. Meanwhile, Nitish Kumar had become the union minister of state for agriculture in the V.P. Singh government of 1989-1990 and then union minister of railways in the A.B. Vajpayee Cabinet.

In 1997, Yadav walked out of the Janata Dal and formed Rashtriya Janata Dal, leaving Nitish Kumar to lead the Janata Dal (United). Yadav joined hands with the Congress and secured himself a cabinet berth heading the Railways Ministry. He engineered a turnaround so spectacular that it became a case study in business schools. However, many Railways insiders say that the credit must go to Kumar, who had preceded him in the ministry during the National Democratic Alliance government led by the BJP.  

Officials say that the financial turnaround during the Yadav years was possible only due to the substantial work in improvement of railway lines and time-keeping of passenger trains that was done during the Kumar regime.

“The turnaround of the Railways was actually set in motion by Nitish Kumar who carried out substantial asset replacement which helped the succeeding Lalu administration move more goods on the track,’’ says R. Sivadasan, former member of the railway board.

While his work at the Railways went rather unnoticed, fame was awaiting him in Bihar. Kumar understood that development could be good politics too. Since Bihar was at the bottom of the pit, even small efforts would look dramatic and could be vote-catching. One of the significant decisions that Kumar took soon after coming to power in Bihar in 2005 was to reserve half of the seats in Panchayats for women.

Nitish Kumar: The Super CEO
Image: Prashant Ravi/Bihar Photo

“Kumar fought for reservation for women even though Sharad Yadav lobbied against it in Parliament. This was a huge factor in getting votes across caste lines. He faced a lot of revolt within the party on this. But he stood his ground and he acted as if Sharad Yadav’s views were personal,” says Praveen Rai of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies.

The most popular scheme devised by Nitish Kumar targeted girls. The Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana helped over eight lakh girls buy cycles in the past four years. Under the scheme, the government handed out cheques to girl students studying in high school. The scheme was later extended to boys as well, and now according to government estimates, close to 12 lakh students have been gifted bicycles.

The move paid off handsomely during the recent polls when 10 percent more women turned up at polling booths. Kumar also knew that though development would bring votes, it would not be enough to dent the caste and community vote banks that Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party commanded. That would require hard-nosed identity politics.

A state commission constituted to identify sub-castes for targeting government help, recommended 21 out of 22 sub-castes to be classified as Mahadalits. The Dussadhs also known as Paswans, led by Ram Vilas Paswan, who form 31 percent of the 1.3 crore scheduled caste population in Bihar, were left out of that list. However, the government said that all the benefits given to Mahadalits will also be available to the landless Dussadhs but denied to the creamy layer of the community. It won Kumar the trust of a large section of the low-caste population.

His most formidable political achievement, however, was the manner in which he managed to wrest Muslim votes from Lalu Prasad Yadav.

“Nitish Kumar is one of the finest problem solvers in the country. Lalu commanded around 27 percent of the votes through his Muslim-Yadav combination. Nitish broke the pattern very intelligently,” says Ali Anwar of the All India Pasmanda Muslims Mahaz, which played a significant role in swinging the Muslim votes in Nitish’s favour.

The Pasmanda Muslims are considered to be lower caste and account for close to 80 percent of the Muslim vote in the state. It was a political balancing act of considerable finesse as Kumar’s alliance partner is the BJP. He let it be known widely that the alliance was merely for the numbers and he would keep the BJP and its agenda at bay. The message was loud and clear when he made it known that he would not let BJP leader and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi campaign in his state.

“Nitish took up our cause for Scheduled Caste status for Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in Parliament. He did this despite being supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party. In fact he was opposed by the BJP on the floor of the house. But he stood his ground,” says Anwar.

The bearded Kumar made another politically sensitive move by expediting the inquiry into the Bhagalpur riots of 1989 which led to the conviction of 14 people in the case that involved the massacre of 116 people, including women and children. Many of the accused in the case belonged to the Yadav caste which was thought to be a reason for the lack of enthusiasm on the part of Lalu Yadav to get the case going.

While Nitish Kumar did everything right in his first term and managed a stronger mandate for the second, the way forward could be trickier. So far, he has done everything right. He has brought in a law to strip officials off their assets if they are found to be disproportionate to their income. He is also planning legislation to make government services a citizen’s right.

However, there is one issue that could punch holes in his sails. There is pressure from the Left to implement the D. Bandyopadhyay Commission’s recommendations on land reforms in the state. Professor Praveen Jha of the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University strongly believes that Kumar would not bite the bullet on this one.  

“We saw what happened to the Bandyopadhyay Commission Report. All its recommendations are on hold,’’ says Jha. He believes that in spite of the huge victory, Kumar would be very scared because as soon as he says that even one of the provisions will be implemented, immediately there will be a backlash. And in Bihar, even OBCs are significant land holders.

Land is an issue so fraught with risks that it takes enormous amount of political will to address it. Only Bengal and Kerala have managed to redistribute land to the poorer sections, that too with limited success. Congress leader Digvijay Singh, in his second successive stint as chief minister, perilously tried it in Madhya Pradesh.  

It will be Nitish Kumar’s most important political achievement if he manages to pull off land reforms in the state without violence and erosion of his painstakingly built political equity.

(This story appears in the 31 December, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • NRI Loves Bihar

    Great article - Nitish is an inspiration to Biharis and other Chief ministers of India. The Indian voter seems to have learnt what the MBA schools keep preaching - "If you cant measure it you cant manage it". Voters in India are measuring their leaders by economic and social factors (read economic growth and crime); and then voting for the one that performs. @ Avinash and @ Prashant - can we just get over this nitpicking on what the dates and months or the party name was. Take a deep breath and feel the pride of being a Bihari today. If you find it difficult, then think back on the jungle raj Bihar, in the pre-Nitish times. Good luck Nitish ji, stay on course, the people are watching and hoping for a second inning that is as good as the first one (better performance will be more than welcome) :-) In the 21st century world, good leaders are a miracle and we Indians could do with some more miracles like Nitish.

    on Mar 7, 2011
  • Shashi Bhushan

    I just want to say we all have dreamt and he is the one who turn it into truth. God Bless Nitish. We all love u.

    on Dec 27, 2010
  • Prashant Kumar

    May be this reporter is not well known with Bihar politics. >>In 1997, Yadav walked out of the Janata Dal and formed Rashtriya Janata Dal, leaving Nitish Kumar to lead the Janata Dal (United). Actually Nitish has parted away from laloo, much before that and he has created his party named "Samta Party". Later he merged his party with JD(U).

    on Dec 27, 2010
    • Avinash

      You are absolutely right. This is called ultramodern journalism, writing flowery article full of factual errors. In 1994, Nitish Kumar along with George Fernandes parted their way from then Janta Dal and formed Smata Party. Later on charges of fodder scam Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan alienated Lalu and Lau parted his way from Janta Dal and formed Rashtriya Janta Dal. And I believe it was 1999 Loksabha Election when Samta Party merged with Janta Dal to form Janta Dal- United

      on Jan 2, 2011
  • Jaiprakashishwar

    He is the only hope of bihar for coming 10 years.

    on Dec 27, 2010
  • Murli

    We should also not forget one more huge contribution of Mr. Nitish Kumar in uplifting Indian railways: Making railways ticket avilable at home by E-Ticketing and I-Ticketing and opening of enormous booking counters at multiple places besides stations. One can't forget how much harrowing and broker oriented Railways ticket booking procedure was. This man made a terrific change bringing relief to all train travellers.

    on Dec 27, 2010