The dark horse for 2014?


NUMBER ONE Anne Marg is the most high-profile and prominent address in Patna, residence-cum-office of the chief minister of Bihar. It’s a Monday morning and the lawns are abuzz with visitors from neighbouring villages and districts. It’s the chief minister’s day for an open house, or “Janata ki durbar mein Nitish Kumar” (Nitish Kumar in the people’s court), as the man himself puts it.

Almost like the avuncular chief of a village panchayat, Kumar sits by a table, under a makeshift shamiana. Before him is a stack of files, and a telephone. At the next table sit three bureaucrats, secretaries to the government of Bihar, and part of a tribe that Kumar watchers say he trusts more than he does many of his party colleagues. Ministers are also hanging around. Since today is the Monday designated for education and health issues and, complaints, the relevant ministers are present.

A serpentine queue forms and one after the other, complainants come to Kumar. He listens to the grievances, pointing them towards the relevant secretary or minister. This reporter is given a ringside view of the proceedings to monitor the chief minister’s problem solving approach. “If the grievance of any of those who approach the chief minister involves a direct involvement at the highest level,” says a senior civil servant, “the chief minister sees to it that, it is addressed in his presence. This has contributed to the impression of him being a man of action.”

There are all sorts of people and faces at the durbar, including Muslims easily identifiable in their skull caps, representing a constituency that Kumar has courted and been careful to be seen as courting. As if to complete the picture of inclusiveness, the chief minister walks to a group Muslims, speaking to them for a while. Next he walks to a group of elderly women.

His ministerial colleagues are relegated to the background, decidedly awkward, almost as a support cast in a film. The minister for education, a Janata Dal (United) person, a former advocate general, can’t stop gushing about how his leader is a 24/7 politician. The minister for health, from the BJP, nervously laughs off suggestions of feeling left out, and insists on the good work of the coalition.

Meanwhile, the media circus has begun. As photographers click away furiously, Kumar gives them the appropriate photo-ops — listening patiently to an old man in a skull cap, stopping and enquiring after a man in a wheelchair. This is the image Kumar loves to convey: the kinder, gentler face of non-Congress politics.

Kumar believes that he is indispensable for any NDA — or indeed any non-Congress — arrangement after the 2014 election

There are critics among local journalists too. They dismiss the janata durbar as an eye-wash. Some are the usual cynics, and Bihar is never short of them. Some clearly owe allegiance to the Laloo Yadav camp and are trying to make inroads into the post-Laloo establishment. The Opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal, Laloo’s party, questions Kumar’s secular credentials and points out that he maintained silence as the railway minister during the Gujarat riots of 2002. There are questions about his silence following the Forbesganj firing a year ago, which saw the death of four Muslims.

Favoured hand LK Advani had hinted that a non-BJP, non-Congress prime minister could be at the helm in 2014
Photo: AP

One CM to another Laloo Prasad Yadav has questioned Nitish’s secular credentials as railway minister during the 2002 Gujarat riots
Photo: AP

Others punch holes into Kumar’s achievements in Bihar. National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) reports are cited to argue that crime rates have not dipped to the extent they should have. As a result, the hospitality industry is almost nonexistent in Patna. Power cuts also trouble citizens and Kumar hasn’t really made a difference on that count.

Despite the criticism, there is a sense of reassurance that Kumar has given his people. In spite of abject poverty, Bihar topped the list of states this year with a record GDP growth of 13.1 percent in 2011-12. This is also evident in the popular mood. Away from the cynicism of the hangers-on and the local journalists at the janata durbar, the proverbial man on the street is more undiluted in his assessment.

The taxi driver who drives you to the small sweet-shop, the women in the tiny accessories store, even the auto-rickshaw driver in Delhi, ferrying passengers for years in the capital, but finally hoping there may just be something for him to return home to in Darbhanga: these are the little people and theirs are the little stories that speak for Nitish Kumar’s success. He has put optimism back in business in Bihar.

The centre has been planning to introduce reservation for women. Bihar has 50 percent reservation for women

BEHIND KUMAR’S genial demeanour and obvious administrative acumen lies an astute politician. He has managed to stay in office for seven years now despite an unlikely and, at times uneasy, partner in the BJP. In a state where caste politics has historically been the single most important determinant for government formation, Kumar has combined social engineering with good governance. An innovative formula of upper OBCs (largely Kurmis, Kumar’s caste), poorer Muslims and the so-called Maha-Dalits (the poor and disadvantaged among Dalits) has worked wonders for him.

Kumar has also managed to monopolise the accolades and take sole credit for his government’s achievements. Despite being a near-equal alliance partner, the BJP is not seen as the redeemer of Bihar; Nitish Kumar is. Sushil Modi, Kumar’s old friend in the BJP and the state’s deputy chief minister, is regarded a rubber stamp. A national functionary in the BJP says, in whispers, “Hum paper par coalition hain, sarkaar toh Nitish ki hai (We are a coalition only on paper, the government is run by Nitish).”

What is remarkable is, Kumar senses, he can get away with it. When he makes remarks against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP unit in Bihar as well as party spokespersons in New Delhi run for cover. An ally, with his cultivated laidback humour, mocks the BJP’s bestknown chief minister and the party can do little about it.

Suitable allies Murli Manohar Joshi, Sharad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Arun Jaitley at an NDA rally in Bihar  Photo: Vikas Kumar
Suitable allies Murli Manohar Joshi, Sharad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Arun Jaitley at an NDA rally in Bihar
Photo: Vikas Kumar

One CM to another Laloo Prasad Yadav has questioned Nitish’s secular credentials as railway minister during the 2002 Gujarat riots
Photo: AP


Becoming apparent is the tacit support Kumar is getting in his anti-Modi positioning from sections of the BJP itself. In 2011, Modi held his sadbhavna fast in Gujarat to project himself as a pan-Indian leader, acceptable even to minorities. This unilateralism upset equations within the BJP. It angered LK Advani, who started his anticorruption yatra not in Modi’s Gujarat, but in Kumar’s Bihar.

This would indicate a pattern. Each time Modi is attacked for the post-Godhra riots, the BJP brass rushes to defend him. Yet it maintains a stoic silence when Kumar hits out at Modi, more or less suggests he is communal and calls for accountability for his record in office.

Likewise, the RSS chief speaks up for Modi when Kumar says the next prime minister should be “secular”, but follows that up by ranking Bihar ahead of Gujarat in terms of governance. Finally, BJP president Nitin Gadkari uses an appeasing tone and says Kumar’s conditions for choosing the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate will be adhered to.

As the leader of a political party, I will express my point of view and that of my party. It’s not to provoke people

WHAT IS the subtext of this politics? While answering questions on thermal power projects and tailoring institutes for women, Kumar cannot hide his disdain for those in the Opposition, including national BJP leaders who call his development model a bubble. At the press conference that followed the janata durbar, a television reporter asks him about Baba Ramdev and Advani’s prediction of a non-BJP, non-Congress PM. Nitish brushes it aside: “I thought you were a reporter of Bihar. When did you change your beat to Gujarat?”

Kumar’s calculation is, he is indispensable for any NDA — or indeed any non-Congress — arrangement after the 2014 election. He believes the route to New Delhi runs though Bihar. He is keen to prevent Modi from getting the top job and is viewing his enemy’s enemies as his friends. Advani’s blog on the likelihood of a non-BJP, non-Congress PM was suitably exploited by JD(U) representatives in New Delhi to advance Kumar’s acceptability.

POLITICAL INSIDERS believe Advani is using Kumar to cut Modi to size. The RSS, wary of Modi’s individualism and his ambitions, has kept Kumar in good humour. The Bihar chief minister knows that he appeals to a wider political spectrum. By marginalising others in the JD(U), including the party’s face in the national capital, Sharad Yadav, Kumar has moved beyond the likes and dislikes of his party colleagues. He has far outgrown the Janata parivar.

A senior national leader of the BJP, when asked to comment on Kumar, says: “He’s an outsider to the NDA despite being a key ally, not at ease with stands taken by the BJP on most issues. He seems more at ease bringing out the fissures within the NDA, than in the UPA. Besides, he has got his adherents firmly parked in Delhi, and they have become his spokespersons in the JD(U).” This past week, the BJP demanded the prime minister’s resignation over the coal scandal. The JD(U) insisted it only wanted a discussion, not a resignation.

Other signals too are indicative of Kumar’s growing importance. Bihar is not an industrial powerhouse, as Kumar tells you himself. Even so, in recent months India Inc has gradually found its way to Patna. Bureaucrats talk of receiving proposals from the Adanis and the Ambanis. They are happy, but somewhat perplexed. Has big business recognised some hitherto unknown potential in Bihar — or does it believe Kumar is the dark horse for 2014?

As this reporter left him, Kumar was all set to record his Independence Day speech for Bihar: “This year will be the year of power. We are working on projects to make Bihar self-reliant in power. If I fail, I will not go to the people asking for votes in 2015.”

What will he say on Independence Day 2013? Will he still say the coming year will be “the year of power”, referring this time to a definition of power that transcends electricity? You almost wonder.

‘It would benefit the NDA if it announces its PM candidate right now’

BEFORE HE went on to record his speech for Independence Day, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar spoke to Tehelka. Taking questions on Bihar, the BJP, the runup to the 2014 elections and the Presidential poll, the CM spoke on issues that concern him. He also spoke about some issues that don’t bother him. Excerpts from a conversation with Rana Ayyub:

Photo: Krishna Murari Kishan


Nitishji, to begin with, I want you to elaborate the turn-around of Bihar you have been talking about ever since you came to power?
It has been said that Bihar was the classic case of bad governance. But that is an understatement. There was an absence of governance in Bihar. There were no policies or initiatives to address the needs of people. Central government had made some schemes that were implemented in some places. But beyond that, there was nothing. The mindset was such that there is nothing that needs to be done. That people will eventually vote on the basis of caste. Also, Bihar was never a part of any innovation that took place. The rule of law was missing. There was a time when there were rapes everyday; reporters from across the world were coming to Bihar to report the goondaraj in Bihar. Now, there is a sense of security among the people. Of course, there are petty incidents of crime on-and-off. Is there any state in India where there’s no crime? The difference between then and now is, earlier, criminals were not brought to book, now there are speedy-trials. When we came to power, our agenda was to restore law and order. Now, regardless of anyone, if one commits a crime, the law takes its own course, the police will act independently. This is what happened. We ensured that government witnesses did not backtrack, that they stood their ground. The impact was such that even private witnesses started coming forward. Between 2006 and now, 7,4000 criminals have been convicted. This, when the bureaucrats are the same, the cops are the same, and the judges are the same.

So, are you claiming that you have wiped out goondaraj from Bihar?
I am not claiming that Bihar is free of all crimes or that a criminal act won’t take place tomorrow. I don’t think any state in the country can guarantee that. But, the rule of law has been established. Earlier, people were afraid to walk the streets at night. That has been brought to a low. There is no communal tension or social strife, and that, I can safely state.

Have you been able to bring about inclusive development? Do minorities feel secure in the state? The JD(U) is not in power alone, it is in an alliance with the BJP. Muslims are still apprehensive of Nitish Kumar, who speaks of secularism, while allying with the BJP, which still is a pariah for the minorities.
Well, that is a part of the development I speak about. We call it inclusive development, development with justice. When law and order was established, development and growth came about. And with that, of course, came inclusive development. We had a nyaay yatra in October-November, before the elections. We didn’t promise much, but we said we would give growth with justice; that there will be no bias against any community in the state. So, when you say that we are in an alliance with the BJP in the state and that there is an apprehension in the minds of people, we tried to work towards it in our election campaign in 2005. The line of thinking of minorities is that anybody who aligns with the BJP is communal. They didn’t expect much from us. But when they saw that we were working for everyone, with schemes for minorities, SCs, STs, OBCs, and all sections of society, people understood that this government was inclusive. I can claim that I have the support of all. We started with nothing. We knew that resources had not been used to their potential. When we came to power we just had three months for the financial year, but we had a Rs 4,000 crore plan-size. And today, our plan size is Rs 28,000 crore. Roads are being built. Earlier schools primary health centres existed only on paper. Primary health centres serve lakhs of people. Earlier, on an average just 39 people availed the services at these centres. The 39 soon became 9,000. The public health system has become functional again. Today, the minorities are with us, not because of who we are with, but because of the work I have done for them.

Then why are big business houses not investing in Bihar? Critics say that the bubble of Bihar’development has burst; that it is a farce.
See, investing is something that business houses get into once they are convinced of certain aspects. First was the issue of law and order in Bihar. They thought, let’s watch how long it lasts. Now, we have walked into a second term, and investments have begun. But how do we have big-ticket investments? I mean, we neither have the minerals nor the raw material. Where is the land? The ratio of man-versus-land is very high in Bihar. As of now, we have the highest density of population in the country. In 94,000 sq km, we have schools, industries, and then 103.8 million people. When Bihar was divided, it received 52 percent of its original area, and 75 percent of its population. The good thing though is that the land is fertile. If you leave the strip across Jharkhand, then 94 percent of our land is fertile. Now if someone were to ask us to allot 5,000 hectares of this fertile and densely populated land, what are we supposed to do? Which is why, in a state like ours, which is landlocked and not along the coastal belt, we cannot expect great enterprises unlike other states. How, then, are we expected to answer the question of why there are no big-ticket investments in Bihar? Bihar will have agri-based industries. We have an industrial promotion policy with a single window clearance, which addresses the concerns of business-houses that are interested in coming and setting up their plants here. We give them concessions too. I saw the latest figures, and there has been an investment of 5,000 crore in the state. The process has begun. It will take us time. There can’t be an overnight miracle.

Then why are Biharis are still migrating to other states?
Biharis have been migrating to various places for years. But now there has been a sharp decline in the numbers. Daily wage earners, who used to go to various other states, have started coming back to Bihar. That is why labour-based industries like leather goods are shifting base from Maharashtra and other states to Bihar.

Earlier this year Brahmeshwar Singh of the Ranvir Sena was killed in an encounter. Left parties and the Congress have alleged that the JD(U) used the Ranvir Sena and then threw it away, and that his murder was a conspiracy. Modi and RSS have called it ‘blatant caste politics’ played in Bihar. How do you respond to such criticism?
All these issues have no importance in Bihar. Bihar, as a state, has moved on from all these issues. There will always be forces who will want to take it back to square one. These are what we call vested interests, those who are critical of development in Bihar but glorify it when it suits them. But that wouldn’t happen. Ganga se paani ab upar chala gaya hai.

Do such statements matter to you?
None of the statements matter, people matter, and eventually, development matters. People of Bihar know the difference between right and wrong. They don’t believe in rhetoric. People look at the state of law and order. People see that the properties of erring DG’s and collectors are being confiscated for the first time in the state. Last week, a former DGP was arrested. I have asked all bureaucrats to submit a statement of their earnings and assets to the state. Last year, we introduced Right to Service Act. This is what we call growth with justice. The Centre has been planning to introduce reservation for women. We have already done it. Bihar is the first state that gives 50 percent reservation to women. In the Panchayat elections, 50 percent of the candidates are women. People of Bihar know this. Those outside Bihar also know it but pretend not to. This is not news in the national press. Had it been any other state the media would have hailed it. Taking a cue from us, other “developed” states are following suit.

Would you call it the collective success of the BJP-JD(U) combine, because there have been whispers that you’re taking credit for the performance of the alliance, considering, statistically, the BJP fared better than the JD(U)?
Let’s not get into that. People know whose success rate has increased. It’s easier for statisticians and critics to sit in a room and talk of performance, that BJP fared better than the JD(U). You will know what statistics and popularity is when you go and meet people on the streets, in villages. Inke bolne se kuch badal nahi jaayega.(Their criticisms will not change anything.)

Is that the reason Nitish Kumar, who calls himself a man with a vision, wants to branch out at the national level? Is that why Nitish Kumar and the politics of 2014 is being increasingly discussed?
At the national level, the JD(U) is an ally of the NDA, and we shall remain so. The JD(U) will be a significant associate of the NDA, but we cannot lead the coalition. We have done our bit though, even as a regional party, in elevating an entire state from shambles.

But LK Advani thinks otherwise. Your own partymen have endorsed his views, and gone to the extent of naming you as a potential prime ministerial candidate?
Yes, I have read his blog, but he hasn’t called me the PM. (laughs)

Yes, but he has categorically said that there is a possibility of a non-Congress, non-BJP prime minister.
That’s right, he has said that there is a possibility. But again, he has said that the third front will not be a feasible alternative, that it will not last. Let’s look at how Advani’s blog concludes. It is not that he is paving the way for a third front. He has said that the government in 2014 will be headed by the BJP, and that the BJP will lead the coalition.

So, do you agree that a third front is not viable?
We are talking of Advaniji’s blog, aren’t we? (laughs) He has said it’s possible, but it will not last. He gave five historic examples: Chandrashekharji, Charan Singhji, Devi Gowdaji, Gujralji, and VP Singh. Of course, VP Singh was a different experiment. He was not only being supported by the BJP but also by the Left.

Yeh last point aapke favour mein hai…
Arre nahi.

Branching out Kumar has been vocal in his opposition to Modi as the NDA candidate for PM
Photo:Umesh Prasad

Are you suggesting that the PM will either be from the BJP or the Congress?

Yes, I am saying just that.

But your diktat has been that the prime ministerial candidate must have secular credentials.

That will have to be the premise. I have said that in an era of coalition politics, the PM should be from the larger party. Our demand is that the PM should be a person who is concerned about the backward classes — a man who takes everyone along, a man who is secular to the core; who is acceptable to all of us, someone who is acceptable to every strata of the society, someone with an inclusive image.

If you had already specified this, why did you call Nitin Gadkari and take a commitment from him that Narendra Modi will not be the prime ministerial candidate for the NDA?

I didn’t call Nitin Gadkari. He wanted to talk to me. I have discussions with him regularly.

But he said that you were apprehensive of Narendra Modi.

Whatever Gadkariji has said is all out in the media. I don’t want to get into a controversy again, because everyone wants to paint me as the controversial man. Whatever I told Gadkariji or the BJP was in the context of the well-being of the country; in the interests of our coalition. Why should I repeat my dislike or diktat? I had concerns that I believe are valid, and which I communicated.

There are whispers that there is friction between the BJP and the JD(U), not just at the Centre but also in the state. BJP ministers in the state have made statements against you. Does it look like your alliance might break?

No, that’s not a possibility. I have said what I had to say to the BJP, and whatever I have said is not just my position but also the position of my party.

The PM should be a man who is secular to the core and acceptable to all of us, someone with an inclusive image

So you are not provoked by statements that you hear about the NDA’s PM candidate?

No, I don’t get provoked. I am not in the habit of making provocative statements. Nor do such statements provoke me. But yes, as the leader of a political party, I will express my point of view and that of my party. It’s not to provoke people. It’s only to reassert our position that we will not budge. And yes, it’s not in the context of any individual whoever that may be.

Of late, there has been disenchantment amongst key UPA allies. Mamata Banerjee has been talking of izzat being to allies. Sharad Pawar echoed similar sentiments when he spoke to TEHELKA recently. Do you find resonance especially when both the NDA and the UPA are in disarray?

Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee are both significant allies of the UPA. The way UPA is working, there is clearly a trust deficit, which is why the allies are reacting this way. There is arrogance, and the Congress from the very beginning, has been behaving as if they are in absolute majority. They only have 200 seats. They do not look like they are holding an alliance together. If there is no coordination in the government, this is bound to happen. You will upset leaders, and they will be disgruntled. They are your allies. And you have to take the allies and their views together.

Mass connect At the Janata ki Durbar, listening to people’s grievances
Photo: Krishna Murari Kishan

Why did you support Pranab Mukherjee?

Did we have a choice? To begin with, we respect Pranab Mukherjee. He’s a man of great stature. He was not the Congress party’s first choice. They had lot of issues. We, as JD(U), did not want any controversy over the Presidential candidate. It’s a position of dignity; we should have gone with the consensus. The Congress also erred. They should have spoken to all political parties before naming a candidate. But we thought: it’s okay, at least they spoke to us after deciding on the candidate. Also, the results were known. We knew who was going to win the elections. So why differ? Also, there was no BJP candidate. PA Sangma was not a BJP man. We didn’t want to be a part of a token fight. If it had to be a token fight, there should have been a BJP candidate, although, we were not in a favour of a token fight. Pranab babu was a deserving candidate.

There is not much coordination between the BJP and its allies either. Your MPs and your spokespersons are more vocal against the BJP than the UPA. You almost held the NDA to ransom on the issue of announcing the prime ministerial candidate recently.

As I said earlier, there is nothing wrong in demanding that we go to poll after announcing the prime ministerial candidate. It helps garner the public mood in your favour. It would benefit the NDA if it were to announce its prime ministerial candidate right now. This was how the NDA functioned. All allies were held together collectively by Vajpayeeji. There were coordination meetings, and everybody trusted Atalji’s word.

But Atalji is no more at the helm?

Well, we are not in power. But we are trying to make the alliance work, lets see.

The BJP itself looks like a divided house, whether it’s on the Lokpal or about Baba Ramdev? What’s your stand? Your party president Sharad Yadav shared the dais with Ramdev.

It’s Sharad Yadav’s and the JDU’s call. And we are not against Lokpal or getting black money back. We, in Bihar, have a terrific Lokayukta and its selection process does not involve the CM. We need a strong Lokpal, everyone has a right to it. So, there is no harm, as long as the Annas and the Ramdevs do it in the right spirit. I am not going to comment on their personal interests or agendas. And honestly, I would rather concentrate on Bihar. I think that the system I have set here is exemplary. Of course, I don’t go blowing my horn about it in the media every day. That is not my character, it doesn’t come to me. Others may do so.

Like the RSS and Mohan Bhagwat thinks Bihar is ahead of Gujarat?

(laughs) Well, ab hum kya kahein, unki rai hai.(What am I to say to that, it’s their opinion)

Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.

[email protected]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.