Nitish Kumar, 58, has gained a few kilos and a lot of goodwill in his 40-month tenure as Chief Minister of Bihar. “I am asking for votes based on my performance,” he said, springing into a helicopter at 10 am.
On a blistering April day, as his chopper hopped to far-flung hamlets on the plains of the Ganga and Kosi, the goodwill was visible while the bulge had no effect on his stamina. Nitish was clearly relishing it all.
As the chopper climbed into the sky, he scanned half a dozen newspapers flown in from Delhi and some printouts of political stories from various websites. His voice was sore from several hundred speeches and interviews, and so, despite the heat, he was avoiding cold water.
After an uneventful 75-minute flight, we were hovering over Katihar in north Bihar. Kumar reached for a medicinal stem to soothe his throat. Below us, in an open field, was a crowd of a few thousand people. Cries of “Nitish Kumar zindabad,” rose above the deafening noise of the descending chopper.
Kumar’s speeches are part professorial and part rhetorical. After enumerating his government’s achievements, particularly in improving law and order, he said: “Ab mein mazdoori mangne aya hoon” (I am now seeking my wages).
A group of youngsters began cheering. Curtly interrupting them, he said: “Listen to me before you applaud. If you approve of my methods, work with me. If you don’t, fire me from the job.” Another loud round of cheers followed.
Kumar took potshots at Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan for promoting their families. “For me, all of Bihar is family.
Every girl in Bihar is like my daughter and every boy like my son,” he said. “It used to be a matter of shame to call oneself a Bihari. In the near future, it will be a matter of pride.”
“Make me strong in Delhi, I will get Bihar its due,” he added. Then came his signature sign-off. “If you plan to vote for the Janata Dal (U)-BJP combine, raise your hands.” Everyone in the crowd did. “Since you are endorsing us, with your
permission, I will garland Nikhil Babu (Nikhil Choudhary, BJP candidate). His victory is now your responsibility,” he said.
Every meeting ended this way, and with a special request to women to start their day’s cooking only after they had voted on polling day.
Kumar has been addressing an average of six meetings a day since campaigning began, managing, however, to return to Patna every evening by six.
Meena Devi, a middle-aged voter at one of his meetings, listened closely to Kumar detailing his government’s special schemes for school-going girls. “Girls need better clothes as they grow up and poor parents stop sending them to school," he said. “My government now gives Rs 700 for every girl in class VI for a uniform. We also give a bicycle to every girl who enters class IX.” From a distance Meena bowed silently to Kumar. Her daughter Saraswati Kumari had been one of the beneficaries.
“Jiska khaya, uska gayega (We will vote for our benefactor),” she said. Several other women around her nodded.
Kumar, fast emerging as the tallest leader in Bihar, has worked hard to build a coalition of the lower sections of the backward castes, Dalits and Muslims, while at the same time establishing himself as a capable administrator. By doing so, he has quietly positioned himself as a consensus candidate for the country’s top job.
Lunch was taken in the chopper itself around 3 pm: three parathas, two vegetable preparations and pickle, which he had brought from home. It was his first bite after the chapatti and dal breakfast — his daily routine — he’d had early that morning. A vegetarian, Kumar spends an hour at yoga every morning before setting out.
In the evening, he reviewed reports from different parts of his huge state — the third most populous in the country — before retiring to his private quarters for a light dinner and six hours of sleep.