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