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The man behind Bihar's turnaround

Once considered a basket case, Bihar is doing the impossible: it’s getting better. Varghese K. George finds out what the people of Bihar feel about their CM Nitish Kumar's tenure so far. An HT-C fore Survey

patna Updated: Jun 22, 2008 02:07 IST
Varghese K. George

“Get out, get out,” an officer screamed at a man. Just a few yards away, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar listened intently to another man. All attention: eyes trained on a point on the floor below, head cocked towards the petitioner. It’s Monday, time for Kumar’s Janata Ke Durbar Mein CM. The chief minister hears out a cross-section of nine crore people of Bihar, long considered ungovernable for good reasons. People expect him to solve their problems and grant them their wishes – from drinking water to a housing plot in Patna. A woman once came to complain about her alcoholic husband. And Kumar didn’t turn her away.

Bringing order to Bihar, a state long described as a state of mind – for its monumental backwardness – or a basket case or the lead component of the Bimaru line-up, was never going to be easy. But that is Kumar’s biggest achievement in the first half of his five-year term. “He has put on track the fundamental institutions of state and is using it for the welfare of people,” says Shaibal Gupta, of Asian Development Research Institute.

“Bihar is used to rule by decrees rather than of law. It’s essentially feudal,” Kumar said, unwinding after the gruelling six-hour session with his people.

During the previous regime, the state cabinet, the ultimate executive authority of the state barely met once in a month, and that too for only a few minutes. The first thing Kumar did on taking over was to order a structured cabinet meeting every Tuesday. “Policies are debated threadbare and often it continues for hours,” he said. Simultaneously, processes were simplified: projects costing up to Rs 25 crores, for instance, don’t need cabinet clearance any more. “No file stays here more than a week,” he said, pointing to his squeaky clean table.

All that keeps him busy, leaving him no time even to think back to the days when he watched Guide four times. His last movie was Lagaan; not counting two premiers he attended in the line of duty. He catches up with news in summary sheets passed on to him by aides and the last story he followed on television was the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He also remembers following another story just as closely — that of a boy called Prince who was rescued from a tube well. The huge plasma TV is his statement of peace with technology, that’s all. When he walked into that room in November 2005, a Remington typewriter was the most sophisticated piece of technology there. “Things have changed. Bihar has turned around. During the next half of the government’s tenure these changes will be consolidated,” he says.

“Our government has started 41 new schemes. We have adopted roughly 100 plus innovations in governance,” says Sushil Modi, the chief minister’s trusted deputy. One such scheme is to give a cycle to every girl who goes beyond ninth standard. “A girl riding a cycle to the school induces change in the thinking of the society,” says. He believes that the changed self-perception of the Biharis, though intangible, is the fountain of all other changes to come. “People feel safe; kidnapping for ransom, which had become an industry, has stopped. Big contractors who had fled the state are returning. People increasingly find work. Moreover, they see hope,” he says.

Bihar is governable

Bihar, as they say, is not a state but a state of mind. That’s changing for sure.

Government has played a huge role in the change. “We are disproving the theory that Bihar is ungovernable,” the chief minister says. “Earlier, teachers and doctors skipped work with impunity. Now, not only that you find doctors, but you also find free medicine at primary health centres,” says Shaibal Gupta.

The chief minister says, “We appointed more than two lakh teachers for one. Then quality became an issue and we are now focusing on it. The change is that earlier nothing existed for anyone to complain about quality.” The huge thrust on primary health and education is showing results already — 24 lakh children were out of school when this government took office; now it is reduced to 10 lakhs. Bihar’s human development indices are set to look up. But the state’s public health system does not have a single MRI machine yet. “Bihar should be compared only with what it was before,” warns Gupta.

The Bihar that Nitish took over was in bad shape. The government had not appointed teachers, engineers, policemen and civil officials for years. The Bihar State Public Service Commission had not conducted its exams for seven years in a row. With hundreds of field officials missing, the state did not have the capacity to do anything and even central allocations under different schemes went unutilised. He had to begin by appointing engineers and doctors on contract and even raise a police force comprising retired military personnel. In the first two years, the state government recruited 3,11,852 people. It is in the process of appointing 2017 junior engineers, the crucial link in all development works.

Nitish’s critical role

Kumar went to engineering college only to please his father. But unlike his father, who was a congressman, the budding politician found himself tilting towards the Socialists. At college he learnt more of social engineering. Lalu Yadav and Sushil Modi were then his contemporaries – the former is his principal political opponent now. When Yadav ran for Patna University president’s post, Kumar got him 450 of 500 votes from the engineering college. They may be on the opposite sides of the net now but they stay in touch – Yadav called last week to protest that Kumar did not send him lichi this season.

Having ruled Bihar for 15 years from 1990 to 2005, Yadav remains an icon – mangoes, crackers and beedis are sold under the Lalu brand name, though he has nothing to do with them. He’s charismatic, reckless and has no time for details. In contrast, Kumar is studious, understated and has an eye for details. “Lalu’s victories came from his good luck. Nitish’s from his hard work,” says JD (U) Rajya Sabha member Shivanand Tiwari, who has known both for decades.

Kumar is believed to have played a critical role in helping Yadav put together a political constituency comprising backward castes, Dalits and Muslims that returned him to power again and again. They parted ways in 1993 and after 12 years Kumar unseated Yadav. But Kumar is not yet in a similar position of leadership – he leads a coalition government with the BJP. He wants to win on his own, with the help of his own constituency – an emerging coalition of upper castes, sections of backwards, Dalits and Muslims. Every Tuesday, he meets with workers from a specified area to discuss details of expanding the influence of his party Janata Dal (United). “We have to expand either to help our party or our coalition partner,” he says. The only thing he has copied from Yadav’s style of governance is zero tolerance towards communal tension. “Within half an hour of a tension, the administration will reach the place,” he says.