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Should Nitish Kumar get a second term?

By Dr Mohammad Sajjad
June 29, 2010 18:44 IST
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Nitish Kumar has made the people of Bihar taste the fruits of inclusive development. His rivals don't have that image among the electorate feels Dr Mohammad Sajjad.

If Bihar were an independent country it would probably experienced a military coup or succumbed to revolution. Endemic caste-based oppression and economic backwardness and political violence would have ensured that. Bihar had become infamous for its weak governing capabilities.

This seems to have changed unmistakably ever since the Nitish Kumar-led government assumed power in November 2005. Development has been made the paramount vocabulary in the grammar of Bihar politics since then.

In November, Nitish will seek a fresh mandate. Thus we need an objective assessment of his tenure. The overriding caste identities have been sought to be replaced by emphasising the regional identity of Bihar, so that a 'sub-national nationalism' is rekindled among the people. This aimed at fighting against, softly though, the treatment of Bihar as an internal colony of India.

During the 1970s, when Nitish was a student of engineering in Patna and an activist of socialist leanings, he had written an essay in dispassionate defence of reservation for backward castes in public employment. It testifies his understanding of the political role of the caste identities. During the Lalu Yadav-Rabri Devi era (1990 to 2005), when the anti-Brahmanical rhetoric gave way to Yadav hegemony, at the neglect of the lower shudras, it was Nitish who took a serious note of it.

Within a few months of coming to power, when the elections for local bodies (the three-tier panchayat raj institutions) were held in April 2006, he did two historic and significant things. He reserved half of the total seats for women, and made a proportionate split along the lines of upper and lower backward castes, within the seats reserved for the backward castes.

This judicious arrangement empowered the lower backward castes and was a big blow to the disproportionate hegemony of the Yadavs. Another major step towards 'social engineering' was to effect similar split in the Dalits -- 21 out of 22 castes came to be categorised as Maha-Dalit, leaving only the Paswans (Dusadhs), the caste of Ram Vilas Paswan (the chief of the Lok Janshakti Party), who might be a chief ministerial candidate, and will contest the coming polls in alliance with Lalu's Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Another major electorate are the Muslims who constitute about 16.5 percent of the total votes. Being in alliance with a 'majoritarian' party like the Bharatiya Janata Party, Nitish could have been expected to get negligible Muslim votes. But he has not allowed the BJP to pursue its divisive agenda. People say the BJP's Bihar unit has been de-saffronised, and its leader Sushil Kumar Modi, the deputy chief minister as well as the finance minister, is competing with him only in administrative efficiency.

The age- long weakness of Bihar in governing capability has now been replaced with an efficient one that is collecting revenue at an incredibly high scale.

Moreover, Nitish tried to woo the sections of some of the backward castes (Pasmanda) Muslims. The two major leaders of such movements -- Dr Ejaz Ali and Ali Anwar have been co-opted by Nitish. They represent the Janata Dal-United, Nitish's party, in the Rajya Sabha. Moreover, the Nitish government has granted backward status to the Mulliks. (It is, however, not going well with the other Pasmanda Muslims).

He expedited the inquiry into the Bhagalpur riots of 1989, and some of the culprits have been brought to the book; some victims have received token compensation. Interestingly, a good number of the alleged aggressors belonged to the Yadav caste. This was seen as a possible reason why the Lalu-Rabri regime sat over the Bhagalpur riots issue, while flaunting their Muslim-Yadav electoral arrangement.

This should also be noted that only biggest achievement of the Lalu-Rabri regime was the firm handling of communal riots and, social mutiny against the upper castes. The Nitish-led administration has emerged almost equally unblemished on the issue of communal riots. The only exception is his negligence towards the Riga-Sitamarhi riots of October 1992. The culprits remain unpunished till date.

Lalu had drastically reduced the fund allocation of the Bihar Urdu Academy, the Bihar Madrasa Board, and the minority affairs ministry was, for long, kept without funds. Nitish has tried to reverse such discriminatory policies.

More important, than such electoral management through social engineering, is the fact that Nitish Kumar has succeeded in creating an image that he is a doer, one who means his business, and is seen as a performing chief minister. He has shown his will and capabilities to deliver.

Unlike his predecessor (and erstwhile friend, Lalu), he avoids theatrics, and discharges his business of administration with utmost seriousness. He reportedly clears files at unprecedented rapidity and efficiency.

He tried hard to streamline higher education as his predecessor had assaulted the morale and self-respect of academics. He inducted scholars like Shaibal Gupta as an economic advisor and think-tank of the government. The steps to open institutions like the Chanakya Law Institute, the Chandragupta Institute of Management, Nalanda University etc are really commendable steps. It, however, remains an unaccomplished task.

More than 6,000 posts of teachers in colleges and universities are still vacant and no significant step has been taken by him to look into it.

School education has been given some attention, enrolments have gone higher, but hugely underpaid teachers under the Union government's Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan have ruined the whole set-up. Even though such an arrangement has certainly added to his votes, as many people have got employment, it has repelled teaching talent from the state.

At least the pre-existing sanctioned posts must be filled by offering full salary. His scheme of giving bicycles to the girls of standard IX, has now been extended to the boys as well. These bicycles now symbolise liberation of women. It has helped him enhance enrolments in schools.

Roads are increasingly becoming visible; bridges are being constructed on a large scale. He has spent huge funds, which even his rivals don't deny. They only say all funds are coming from the central government. It should be noted that, historically, Bihar's weak governing capability resulted into huge under-utilisation of funds. It is therefore no mean achievement to succeed in tightening up the bureaucracy to utilise central funds.

Without toning up the law and order situation, such things were impossible to achieve. Before 2005, Bihar had the worst record of crime; kidnapping and vehicle snatching had become the order of the day. Nitish kept reiterating his resolve to reduce it, and has succeeded to a large extent.

Without creating employment, reduction of crime was just impossible. Nitish realised it. He, therefore, sat down to implement the development schemes.

'Inclusive development' was his oft repeated slogan. In sharp contrast with Lalu, who often mocked at the issue of development being linked with politics.

To actualise the fast implementation of development schemes, Nitish restored the dignity and self-respect of performing and upright bureaucrats at the higher levels, provided them with freedom to work without much political interference.

Some of his fellow legislators and party colleagues have expressed their anger at not being able to make officers pliant.

This policy of freedom to the bureaucracy has certainly some pitfalls with allegations of huge bribery and corruption at the lower levels. Nitish is neither oblivious of it nor does he deny this blemish on his administration.

He has put forth two legislations which would provide for confiscation of the officers' properties disproportionate to their known sources of income. He is also finalising the setting up of a fast track tribunal to discharge cases of corruption against officers.

In a long political career, from Union minister of state for agriculture in the V P Singh government of 1989-1990, to Union minister of railways, surface transport in the A B Vajpayee Cabinet and now as chief minister of Bihar, he has not been tainted by any corruption scam.

He is verily regarded as 'Mr Clean'. He has achieved a growth rate of over 11.03 percent, the second highest in India, and far ahead of the national average of less than 8 to 9 percent. Statistical jugglery apart, the common people on the streets are able to see the development all around.

Still, electoral salesmanship has to be done. Realising it, at frequent intervals, Nitish undertakes yatras to come in direct contact with the people, and also to bring the administration to their doorsteps. Armed with meticulous details, he talks to the people, explaining his schemes and their implementation. It helps him in various ways.

On the one hand he makes himself accessible to the common people, diluting the feudal shackles, and in a largely literate and semi-literate society he is able to communicate with the people, and while doing so, he has got something substantial to offer to the electorate.

This is in sharp contrast with his predecessor, Lalu, who had perfected the art of theatrics, rhetoric and histrionics. Lalu's biographer Sankarshan Thakur has rightly remarked, 'those who live by image and image alone must die by it'.

This is what makes one think that a Lalu comeback may be pretty difficult. His was a politics against the middle class, probably because of this a section of the middle class of Yadavs have also deserted the RJD.

Nitish is also likely to be preferred by the electorate due to the fact that his rivals are not seen as 'performing' leaders. While a wilful negligence of good governance and development has been the hallmark of the Lalu-Rabri regime, Paswan is hardly taken as any different from his ally.

The Congress, presently with a mere 10 legislators (out of a total of 243 seats in the assembly) has decided to project Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar as its chief ministerial candidate, and has appointed a Muslim, from the traditional landed elite, as the president of the state unit of the party.

Meira Kumar, after going into the Indian Foreign Service, married a man from the Kurmi caste. She is the daughter of Dalit politician Jagjivan Ram. With this baggage of multiple identities and legacies she is expected to draw in voters, but the mantra of development is less likely to be forgotten by the people of Bihar, notwithstanding their many expectations remaining unfulfilled during Nitish's regime.

Power generation and attracting private investment to generate employment are the two major tasks which remain unfulfilled. Nitish needs another term to do it. The peoples' wisdom can not be underestimated. Nitish has made the people of Bihar taste the fruits of development -- inclusive development. His rivals don't seem to be able to build that image among the electorate.

Dr Mohammad Sajjad is assistant professor, Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University.

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Dr Mohammad Sajjad