by SANKARSHAN THAKUR
Midway through the campaign for the assembly elections of 2010, I set out on a three-week road journey across Bihar to take notes on why ‘change’ had become its birdsong after its long lay-off from wishing or wanting . . .
Nitish [Kumar] was one of those who had egged me on. Jaaiye, dekhiye . . . go see for yourself, he had said when I asked him to list his big achievements in five years as chief minister. He had printed fancy booklets on his signature schemes and fat volumes on performance, and he had his chief of PR a call away, but he resorted to none of those. ‘You’ll learn little from what I tell you, and you will probably not even trust me, I know a bit about journalists,’ he had said, jesting, ‘It is best you go out and judge for yourself.’ That is often a brave thing for a politician in power to do, invite an unguided tour of his realm; they’d more often prefer to sponsor it and rush to make ‘arrangements’. Nitish came from a dignified confidence, he had little to hide, he made out, and much to display.
A lot of what had changed in the years that Nitish Kumar helmed Bihar seemed merely cosmetic—smooth strips of road and road lighting, families out late and unafraid to show off their finery, cleaner kerbsides and façades, public utilities such as bus stations and schools where you saw, more and more, schoolchildren and, at long last, teachers too. Along routes leading out to the heartland in every direction from Patna—north and south of the Ganga, east and west—there was a new clamour of construction: dust, concrete, tar, earthmovers and roadrollers, men, many men and their women, thrown in the works, their children blackened by grit and tar. Being on the road in Bihar could be an unnerving thing. For too long that was because there was no road at all, you rode merely the notion of it. Now, too much of it was being built and that came in the way—diversions, smoke, grime, stoppage.
But to notice that and nothing beyond was to miss the point of what had really begun to change. It was nothing visible or tactile; the real change was happening within the minds and psychologies of Biharis. That became apparent in how they were beginning to find the inspiration and the energy to dust off corrosive cobwebs, how they had become prepared to cast off cynicism and resignation. What was really changing was that hope was born again—roads and broken bridges could be built, streets could be lit, schools could become busy, criminals could be put behind bars, promise could be delivered, if only slowly, if only patchily. Power is yet to reach most of Bihar’s darkness, but there is credible expectation it is on its way. Old sub-stations in the smallest towns and village blocks went under repair or were replaced in Nitish’s first term; at the very start of the second, new power projects were put on the board. Doubtless, they constituted mere assurance, but when a road follows the promise of one, there’s ground to expect it will one day be lit.
There’s probably no better place to get a sense of the changes that have come about almost imperceptibly in Bihar than the precincts of its most famous address: 1 Aney Marg, official residence of the chief minister. Under Laloo Yadav, it was a subaltern open house overrun by cattle at the back and all hues of lounge lizards up front—socialists and scamsters, scribes and favour-seekers, sycophants and scoundrels, in-laws and outlaws, a whole confederacy that first put Laloo out of touch with his rooted reality and, then, out of power. Its presiding deity—Laloo Yadav—mostly sat cross-legged on a rattan chair at the back, burping, farting, scratching his nether orifices with the abandon of an unalloyed child of nature. He chewed fistfuls of tobacco and swilled endless cups of tea to coax constipation out of his system. Then he gorged on heaps of rice and fish or mutton curry while he indulged himself on endearments issuing from toadies seated around. He ordered minions and babus and often Rabri Devi, who happened to be, for a long time, also the chief minister. He hatched many plots to prolong his hold on power. That’s how he passed most of his days at 1 Aney Marg, like a profligate king at court.
Nitish Kumar had slowly banished all of that and hung a placard at the entrance: Man at Work, Do Not Disturb. You entered if you had business, else you had no business entering. There’s a dedicated weekly hour for prayer, petition and contact, the rest of the time 1 Aney Marg’s gates open strictly by appointment. Detractors, even within his fold, tell you Nitish is paying a price for turning ‘unapproachable’, but the man himself is persuaded of the virtues of the new order. ‘Why have a mela all the time? The chief minister of a state has work to do, people eventually understand and respect that. I seldom refuse people who come with work, this is the home and workplace of the chief minister, not some political akhara,’ he said to me when I asked him if he was cutting himself off. Laloo was the opposite, but that was a distinction Nitish only implicitly suggested.
Just before setting out on that trip across Bihar, I went to see Nitish for an interview. He sat solitary under a thatched gazebo on the lawns of his official bungalow, a cordless phone and a tumbler of water by his side, bifocals low on the ridge of his nose, bearing down quizzically on paperwork. That made rare sight for a whole generation of Biharis. When had they last seen their chief minister reading files? He tore himself away from the files as we approached: ‘So?’
So? Five years gone, elections upon him, what was to come?
‘Dekhiye,’ he reflected calmly, surveying the clipped lawns and their pretty trim of flowerbeds, ‘Badlaav toh aaya hai Bihar mein, aur woh chunav mein dikhega, mujhe koi chinta nahin hai.’ . . . Let’s see, changes have certainly happened in Bihar, and they will show in the elections, I am not worried at all.
Did it worry him that he was under a heap of praise unprecedented for a Bihar chief minister?
‘It’s a mixed feeling,’ he replied, ‘I am humbled and encouraged by the praise, I am happy that Bihar is getting positive attention. But equally, I feel the pressure. Too much remains to be done, and there is a moral and psychological responsibility to carry on from here. We have just begun. The praise is a warning to remain alert to tasks.’
I then asked him what to him was his core achievement in the first five years that he had ruled the state. He paused, and then he said: ‘I sense that there is something in Bihar today that goes above all this, there is a new hope and pride, there is a sentiment that I can only call a new Bihari sentiment, a new consciousness. And that is a feeling that will not allow itself to be derailed or defeated. There is no anti-government sentiment, there is a pro-government sentiment. There is no tension in society, sukoon hai . . . there’s social peace. And that is riding on the hope that things can change for the better. People don’t want a return to the past. Lakdi ki handi dobara aag par nahin charhti . . . A wooden pot cannot be put on the stove twice. There is a new Bihari identity that has emerged above caste and religion.’
Did it not worry him, though, that the BJP was his ally in politics and government, a party widely perceived as communally divisive, a party he himself had fought for the better part of his career?
At that time Nitish belittled the question, swatted it like some irksome fly. ‘You make an unnecessary phantom of the BJP. Where have they interfered, or been able to. I have a distinctly pro-minority agenda and I have implemented it wholesomely. We are opening a chapter of the Aligarh Muslim University, we have punished the guilty of the Bhagalpur riots, we have special reservation and welfare schemes only aimed at Muslims. Who has come in the way of that? Nobody. The BJP has its own agenda but in Bihar we run the government on the basis of an agreed common minimum programme of which minority welfare is a critical part. Where have I given any hint I will allow the BJP to compromise my secularism?’
I turned to his style of constituency building and asked if he was not a divisive politician himself. His policies had begun to favour Pasmanda (backward) Muslims, the extremely backward castes and the lesser Dalits as specially carved out constituencies. The argument ran that Nitish’s government was not about development, it was still about social engineering, only more micro engineering. Was his politics about development or about identity?
Nitish said he found no contradiction. Development is for everyone, he argued back, roads are not for Dalits or Muslims alone, and so too for schools and hospitals and public toilets and many other things the government was working on, these were inclusive schemes. Women were coming out in Bihar as a result of 50 per cent reservation in local bodies, they came from all castes and classes and religions. Governments had an obligation to go out of the way and do things for them, Naxalism was a consequence of governments not doing so, the poor need special attention.
Did he not fear an upper caste backlash? Did he think he had threatened their interests by mooting land redistribution?
He coiled back and protested. Land redistribution was a ghost some people were trying to stoke to life, he said, his government had sought a report on it but had not taken any view on that report. He called it an issue of ‘artificial scare’ his adversaries were behind. ‘My firm belief is,’ he told me, ‘that a new Bihari identity has emerged in the last few years which is above caste and class, it is a new pride we have generated and I am sure it will count. I am here to make it count. That is the purpose I have pursued all my life.’
That was the eve of Nitish’s most famous electoral victory, a landslide endorsement that would hand him a two-thirds majority in the Bihar assembly. There was no cause at the time to suspect that a hornet cloud of troubles was about to close in and pull a shadow over the future of the most widely lauded chief minister and government Bihar had had in decades.
Half-way into his second term, Nitish Kumar would step out of Bihar and take a high-risk gamble to torpedo Narendra Modi’s bid to become prime minister of India. He would call his Gujarat counterpart a divisive fascist, a man who threatened the foundations of pluralist India. Modi was a man he was not prepared to work with, he would fight him. Nitish knew just what a huge risk he was embarking on, but it was not a risk he would flinch from taking: ‘Is aadmi ke saath koi compromise nahin hoga, is se hamaare sambhaav ko khatra hai.’ . . . There shall be no compromise with this man, he threatens our inclusive way of life. In the process of unveiling that grandiloquent clash of ideas with Narendra Modi, Nitish would lose an old ally and earn himself a belligerent adversary. The bitter unravelling of his seventeen-year partnership with the BJP would also inaugurate a chain of events that would bring Nitish eyeball to eyeball with the most daunting challenge of his life and imperil the very promise he had made to himself as a young political idealist, the promise to achieve something for Bihar.
(Excerpted from the book A Single Man: The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar by Sankarshan Thakur, who is also the author of The Brothers Bihari.)