Embarking on his Vishwaas Yatra, trust tour, from idyllic Valmikinagar on the Nepal border early last summer, Nitish Kumar took to the jungles of the Valmiki Tiger Reserve. The terrain was also feared to be Maoist turf. The Bihar chief minister was undertaking a journey of confidence. Carefully moulded tiger ‘pugmarks’ had been placed along his jungle path by forest officials who also placed a camera trap on the trunk of a teak tree. After taking a look at the ‘pugmarks’, Nitish walked past the camera – a perfect photo opportunity. Indeed the symbolism of this scene resounded for this writer through the silence of the forest, despite the make-believe pugmarks: Nitish represents a nearly extinct breed in the jungle of Indian politics. Today, finding an honest, sincere neta, with the added gusto of political will, is as elusive as the sighting of the shy, increasingly rare tiger.
Tracking his fourth consecutive yatra from the Champaran region, my mind wandered back to Nitish’s first such journey. In 2005 he undertook the Nyaya Yatra, justice tour, starting from the then-dreaded environs of Bagaha in West Champaran district, the nerve centre of the kidnapping-for-ransom industry. His plan then was to seek a mandate from the people to rid Bihar of the ‘jungle raj’ – the epithet given to the long years of the regime of Lalu Prasad and his wife, Rabri Devi. The Nyaya Yatra took him to all corners of the state over back-breaking potholes for what passed off as roads under a regime whose helicopter-hopping leader, Lalu, had famously not felt he needed. ‘The rich drive in motor cars,’ Lalu had said, ‘not the garib-gurba [poor].’ His political rhetoric had made him a messiah of the downtrodden, even as the helicopter rotors whined in the background. But for how long he could maintain the façade of messiah remained to be seen.
Lalu did give a voice to the backward classes. But he was not the lone face of Mandal politics in Bihar. His arrogance and whimsical ‘durbar politics’ saw Nitish Kumar, his former close associate, leave his side in 1994. That did not bother Lalu, who saw himself as the sole face of the politics of the downtrodden, and the political firmament that he wove increasingly became a web of corruption, crime and rampant lawlessness. And when he could not ride to electoral majority on his own, he found a passive ally in the name of secularism: the Congress party. Raising the issue of secularism, which had helped him secure the Muslim vote in the past, Lalu repeatedly lampooned Nitish as a lackey of the ‘communal’ BJP. But this strategy did not work this time round or in the previous Bihar assembly election in 2005. Stints in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in New Delhi had given Nitish the opportunity to showcase his prowess at governance at the centre, and his politics of managing political contradictions – both of which were to later pay rich dividends in Bihar.
Pushed to the wall of poverty, Biharis, cutting across caste, creed and class took the only way out: they migrated. Yes, the migrants faced ridicule, but faced with the black hole back home, they persevered. Soon, Bihari grit and enterprise became bywords for success stories outside Bihar. ‘You can take the boy out of Bihar, but you cannot take Bihar out of the boy,’ author Amitava Kumar once wrote to me on the subject of Bihar’s shining diaspora. But he, as well as other expatriates, such as Sanjay Pradhan, the vice-president of the World Bank Institute, amidst countless others, also shared the common angst of their home state withering away to political bankruptcy and corruption – all gloating over the edifice of caste. Migrants who worked as auto-rickshaw drivers, car-park attendants, vegetable vendors and in various other sundry jobs in the metros, the farms of Punjab and industrial townships like Ludhiana or Faridabad, too rued the reason for their exodus: high crime and lack of opportunities. This all-pervasive feeling of despondency is what gave Lalu’s adversaries an opportunity to unseat him.
The changing of the guard, when it finally happened in November 2005, had an immediate impact. Just a week after the toppling of the Lalu-Rabri regime, I took a drive through the night from the ‘kidnap country’ around Bettiah to Patna. The glittering line of lamps on the national highway made us stop in wonder: Wasn’t this the place where no one dared to move after sundown? A new eatery was serving hot meals at midnight. ‘Bas road ban jaye aur crime control ho jaye , tourist log aane lagenge’ (Tourists will troop in once roads are built and crime is controlled), the highway food-court manager prayed, hoping for a revival in pilgrimages to Buddhist sites in the region.
Prayers like this were on every lip, and Nitish had his task cut out for him. If Lalu had the vote-bank of his own Yadav caste, strengthened with Muslim support, Nitish was seen to have won on the back of the support of disgruntled upper castes, coupled with the support of his own Kurmi caste and the aligned Koeris, two powerful intermediate castes that felt left out when the Yadavs emerged as the main backward-caste power bloc in the new politics under Lalu. But could Nitish hold on to this upper-caste support while looking down the caste ladder? Another more difficult, or at least more immediate, challenge was reining in the muscle – the so-called bahubalis (political musclemen), many of whom had by 2005 jumped on to Nitish’s bandwagon.
Law and order thus became Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s first priority. The state’s police, which until recently had been seen as a hand-maiden of the criminal-politician nexus, were soon motivated to swing into action by Nitish’s backing. Criminals were not only caught, but they faced the music of the law with speedy trials. Many of the Bahubalis were convicted, some from within Nitish’s own NDA ranks. Infrastructure development also became a state priority, and became a boom sector. The state’s almost non-existent roads began springing to life, while new bridges brought people and places closer together. Where earlier there had been no roads, now people were complaining of traffic jams and lack of parking spaces.
Industrialists Anand Mahindra and Mukesh Ambani came calling, but they were among a string of investors who were still apprehensive about how safe Bihar was for their money. Indeed, Bihar still awaits significant investment today – though Nitish’s resounding victory in November will undoubtedly do much to assuage remaining doubt. Certainly that is his foremost challenge in this, his second innings at the helm.
During his first five years in power, among the slew of commissions that Nitish formed was one that looked at land reform. Submitted in 2008, but not made public or acted upon, the report triggered rumours that a new bataidari (share-cropping) law would be brought in. The report held out the possibilities of turmoil as landowners, large and medium-sized, feared for their holdings. Indeed, this threatened to undo the chief minister’s carefully crafted plans to bringing the state back on the rails. In the event, Nitish refrained from bringing in any new legislation; instead, he stressed investment in education, health and industry in the making of a Naya Bihar.
Undoubtedly, Nitish did take something of statesman’s view on the economy, looking to create avenues for the creation of wealth, with an eye to making both Bihar and its divided populace a united beneficiary of growth and development. At the same time, though, he also skilfully factored in the politics of caste, which he further fine-tuned by creating a gender vote-bank. By providing 50 percent reservation to women in local bodies (village panchayats and urban municipal bodies), Nitish dealt a masterstroke in the male-dominated polity of Bihar. True, in certain cases husbands came to use their wives as ‘remote controls’ in heading these bodies; but slowly and steadily, women are carving out clear niches for themselves in the halls of power in Bihar. In addition, by starting up a programme of giving bicycles to schoolgoing girls (along with a slew of other gender-related benefits), Nitish has become a darling of this massive constituency – clearly a major factor propelling him back to the seat of power.
Nitish brought in new schemes for the state’s minorities, too, in particular targeting the Pasmanda Muslims, who are considered Dalits. He further allayed the apprehensions of the religious minorities regarding his co-habitation with the BJP by publicly denouncing Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Interestingly, the BJP remains happy playing second fiddle. Bereft of a popularly acceptable face after the exit of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP found a mascot in Nitish Kumar, who had already been part of the BJP-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) ruling coalition at the centre. In the run-up to the Bihar polls of 2005, the NDA chose Nitish as its chief ministerial candidate, a choice meant to provide a socialist, secular face to the alliance. This served the NDA well, and in the 2010 polls Muslims too voted for the NDA. This visible shift in the minority vote is largely seen as a fruit of Nitish’s acceptable image, an image that the NDA enjoyed at the centre under Atal Behari Vajpayee’s stewardship.
With each of these moves, Nitish set up a situation in which only he could win. Lalu and his close ally, Ram Vilas Paswan, seemed to lose the plot of Bihari politics by sticking to age-old caste-alliance politics. Even the Congress, which finally woke up to the changes afoot and decided to go it alone in the state, failed to get its act together – cobbling together a team of candidates imported from other parties, most of them discredited in the public eye, and many of whom came from Lalu’s old stable. In a state in which a new generation of voters has come of age without seeing the Congress organisation on the ground, India’s grand old party came across as Lalu’s B-team.
Thanks and complaints
Midway through his first term, Nitish began his second journey from Champaran. On the first night of this, his Vikas Yatra, the chief minister camped in a tent in a remote village called Patilar, by the Gandak River. The irony was not lost on the locals, who had been at the mercy of gangs engaged in kidnapping and extortion at will. In Patilar, Nitish laid the foundation stone for a bridge across the Gandak, and held a meeting with the villagers. Thousands stayed up late into the night as Nitish took to the stage, asking the citizens to speak their minds. The response came in torrents of thanksgiving as well as complaints of corruption and bureaucratic anarchy.
Such misgivings poured in everywhere during chief minister’s journey; the situation in village panchayats was a recurrent story of looting and ‘commission raj’ tactics. However, many places that had experienced no delivery of services earlier now reported something as happening. Public-distribution beneficiaries from ‘below poverty line’ families had much to thank the government for, despite the continued shortcomings and pilferage. Nitish’s ability to mesmerise a crowd was evident everywhere he went during the Vikas Yatra.
Even where the bureaucracy floundered, Nitish’s leadership was seen as effective. Two catastrophes in particular stand out: the Darbhanga floods of 2007 and the Kosi deluge of 2008. When the Mithilanchal area of Bihar went underwater, Nitish was in Mauritius. For the first few days, the local administration was at a loss, clearly underprepared and with few resources at hand. Once he returned, the chief minister immediately prioritised disaster mitigation, and foodgrains were doled out by the quintal (earning him the sobriquet of Quintal Mukhya Mantri). A similar instance of Nitish’s balm was on display in the following year in the Kosi floodplain: local-level unpreparedness (leading to even a food riot in Madhepura), followed by the chief minster showing an ability to sooth the people’s pain and misery. Mega-relief camps were set up, relief efforts stepped up, cash doles handed out and rations supplied yet again by the quintal to see the flood victims through the crisis. Rehabilitation measures were also taken up on a war footing.
Not surprisingly, the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 were billed by some observers as the ‘semifinals’ in the Bihar power-play. And though the Congress was returned to power in Delhi, Bihar decided to put its trust in the NDA. Immediately thereafter, Nitish launched into his third journey, the Dhanyavaad Yatra, thank you journey. On this, the chief minister was able to show that his connection with the masses remained alive, as reconfirmed and strengthened during the Vishwaas Yatra a year later.
As the polls neared in 2010, meanwhile, Lalu and Paswan struck up a pre-poll alliance, banking on the coalition of Lalu’s OBC caste-combine base and Paswan’s Dalit base. Observers felt that Lalu had done his homework well, choosing candidates based on smart caste configurations in each constituency. The Congress drew crowds of potential candidates once it decided to contest all 243 seats. And given the rising ambitions of the newly empowered Panchayati Raj representatives – many allegedly fattened by the flow of development funds – the contest in each constituency became increasingly multi-dimensional. The vote-katuas (a term first used by Lalu for the large number of independents and from the Congress during the assembly polls in 1995, connoting that such candidates only had had the capacity to eat into others’ votes, not win elections) threatened to upset electoral calculations.
Adding to the poll drama was the wave of local anger that many of the ruling combine’s incumbent candidates faced across Bihar. Sensing this anti-incumbency sentiment against many of his sitting MLAs, Nitish asked for people to vote for him as remuneration for his good governance in his first term. The polls in fact turned out to be a plebiscite on Nitish’s first term. Nitish went back to the approach that had served him so well in the past, launching another cross-state trip, the Janadesh Yatra, people’s mandate tour, this time starting from the eastern Kosi belt. Again he camped overnight in the hinterland, assuring voters that Bihar’s rejuvenation had just begun and urging them to give him another term to see it through.
The rest of the candidates, meanwhile, were quickly losing any potential lustre. The Congress, after goofing up on the selection of candidates by nominating them at the last minute, further lost popularity by relying solely on the charisma of faraway Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. Likewise, Brand Lalu could not be rebuilt, as the NDA whipped up its campaign, reminding people of the ‘jungle-raj’ that they had uprooted in 2005 and the need to carry on the work of Bihar’s rejuvenation. When the rout finally came, the NDA – the Janata Dal (United) combined with the BJP – bagged 206 out of 243 seats. This was overwhelming even by Nitish’s own earlier estimates. The results show that this was one man’s plebiscite – a mandate that Nitish quickly called a victory for Bihar and development.
The programme begins
It would still be early to write the obituary for caste in Bihar’s politics. But Nitish Kumar has succeeded in raising the bar beyond sectarian confines, by talking of sub-nationalistic ‘Bihari pride’, of development and inclusive politics. The state has reposed trust in his mantra of ‘development with justice’, choosing to look optimistically at Nitish’s performance during his first and, now, second term.
By turning out in unprecedented numbers, voters shooed away the demons of violence, which have always attended elections in Bihar. Yet, this mandate also heaps mountains of expectations on Nitish’s shoulders, particularly with regard to wiping out corruption in the bureaucracy and the higher levels of government. Immediately upon being voted back to power, Nitish has begun well on these two fronts by deciding to do away with MLA funds, and confiscating the properties of babus convicted of graft.
Nitish’s mandate is massive and, of course, the greater the mandate the heavier the expectation. Nitish has begun well by getting down to work immediately upon re-taking charge after the election, unveiling a roadmap – the Programme for Good Governance – for the next five years. This promises advance in the quality of administration, education, health care, agriculture, power and food security. Back from the days of the jungle raj, there is today a sense of assurance: that order has returned to the jungle. Nitish will, of course, have to ensure that this does not lead to officials running amok with their newfound freedom, an allegation that is increasingly being voiced in recent times.
–-Abhay Mohan Jha is a Champaran-based freelance journalist. He is also a farmer and lawyer.