Review: Nitish Kumar And The Rise Of Bihar | books | Hindustan Times
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Review: Nitish Kumar And The Rise Of Bihar

Biography of a man who made coalition-building in Bihar an asset, not a handicap

books Updated: Dec 23, 2011 16:36 IST

Nitish Kumar And The Rise Of Bihar

Arun Sinha

viking

Rs 699 pp 389

Biographies of serving politicians in India are a hazardous enterprise. Writing a definitive assessment of a public person whose position may evolve and whose affiliations may shift even while the manuscript is being prepared cannot be easy. Also, sometimes authors are guilty of reading the individual’s past in the context of his current politics.

Arun Sinha’s Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar negotiates these pitfalls with honesty; to the degree possible, and avoids them. Nevertheless, the final chapters, describing Kumar’s performance as chief minister after he won a landslide victory in 2005 and was re-elected with gusto five years later, are probably the least satisfying portions of the book. As an old college friend of Kumar’s and a contemporary in the political hothouse and student unrest of Patna University in the early 1970s, Sinha understands his subject and where he is coming from, literally. As such, his detailed and meticulous retelling of those years leaves the strongest impression on the reader.

Kumar has been called the most enlightened product of the social justice movement and the generation of largely other backward class (OBC) politicians it threw up. Today his ability to build a rainbow coalition unites the traditionally privileged castes and the OBCs, and has his Muslim constituents voting for his BJP allies. Sinha goes back to the origins of Kumar’s politics, to a time when his coalition-building appeal was not an asset but a handicap.

In the 1980 Bihar assembly elections, Kumar stood from Harnaut, which had a strong presence of his fellow Kurmis. He lost, however, to a Kurmi ‘bahubali’ (muscleman/criminal politician) who represented the aggressive face of OBC mobilisation. “The paradox of Nitish’s identity in the election,” Sinha writes, “was that while the upper castes and the Yadavs saw him as a Kurmi, the Kurmis did not see him as a Kurmi. They saw him as a liberal who would not stand for the interests of the community.” It took Kumar 25 years to convert this ‘disadvantage’ into a badge of honour.

In the interim, Bihar went through the churning and the excesses of the OBC empowerment process and the Mandalisation project. Lalu Prasad Yadav, Kumar’s senior in student politics, came to symbolise this phenomenon. Kumar was by his side when he, Yadav, became chief minister. But a divorce was inevitable, at least to Sinha. In the book — and this is perhaps where the clarity of post facto analysis comes in — Sinha presents Yadav as the compromising pragmatist, right from his university days, as against the agreeable decency of Kumar.

The tide turned in 2005, when Kumar ended Lalu Raj with a resounding triumph. The Yadav chieftain was a bitter loser, delaying moving out of 1 Anne Marg, the CM’s residence in Patna that he and his wife and successor, Rabri Devi, had occupied for 15 years. “Nitish’s aides who went round the premises after Lalu and Rabri left,” Sinha writes, “discovered things that could be seen as signs of occult practice, which they presumed to have been undertaken to harm Nitish.”

There were rumours that Yadav had hidden his ill-gotten wealth somewhere in the house: “The staff was tipped by the grapevine that he was most likely to have concealed it in the swimming pool, underneath its floor tiles and behind its side walls. Pickaxes were brought and tiles were removed by labourers… After a good deal of digging they gave up, wondering where the lord of the poor had buried his treasure.”

The Nitish era had begun.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer