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Nitish's Real Legacy is His Inability to Lift Bihar From the Morass of Poverty

As per the Niti Aayog's multi-dimensional poverty report, Bihar has the highest poverty ratio in India.

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Too much has been written about the so-called perfidy and penchant of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for the author to add anything meaningful. After all, he has been doing political cartwheels since 2013 and who knows when mortals like us will be blessed with the privilege of witnessing another one.

Too much has also been written about how the latest U-Turn by Nitish over the weekend has dealt a devastating blow to the INDIA Alliance. Frankly, after some enthusiasm as a commentator between June 2023 and September 2023, the author had given up on the opposition alliance prospects for the 2024 Lok Sabha war when the BJP trounced the Congress in the Assembly elections in the three heartland states — Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

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The only way for the INDIA Alliance to prevent Narendra Modi from securing a third consecutive term was for the Congress to do exceedingly better than the 2019 elections in about 200 seats where it is in direct conflict with the BJP.

That chimera disappeared in December 2023. The remaining delusions too would go after the Nitish Kumar flip-flop.

What the author wants to highlight is what he has been arguing since 2022, a fascinating facet of the political economy of India that has been strangely ignored by even better-informed analysts and pundits, that individual leaders play a critical role in impacting the fortunes of a state.

In my book, a 'good' political leader actually improves the standard of living and incomes of the citizens in a manner that is sustained but often dramatic. Conversely, a 'bad' leader in my book fails to do so. Since the spotlight is on Nitish Kumar, let us focus on the performance of Susashan Babu and two other chief ministers who have dominated two neighbouring states — West Bengal and Odisha. We are talking about comparing the track record of Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, and Mamata Banerjee.

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Comparing Nitish to His Peers

Though differing ideologically from the BJP, the Samata Party of Nitish Kumar and the BJD of Naveen Patnaik became NDA allies when its first majority government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee was formed in 1998. The TMC led by Mamata Banerjee came on board a little later after the process of breaking away from the Congress to form a regional party was completed. All three were given relatively important portfolios in the Vajpayee cabinet.

Of the three, Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee have already battled hardened warriors. Nitish Kumar had gone to jail during the Emergency for supporting Jai Prakash Narayan. After the Emergency, Mamata Banerjee was protesting and climbing onto the bonnet of a car as a youth Congress leader carrying Narayan in Kolkata.

What was Naveen Patnaik doing during those tumultuous days? Well, he led the active life of a socialite in Lutyens Delhi, partying with the likes of Maharani Gayatri Devi and Mick Jagger. Of the three, Nitish and Mamata were considered classic products of grassroots political work while Naveen was dismissed as an alleged 'dilettante' who had accidentally stumbled into politics. Analysts mocked Naveen since he could barely speak his mother tongue Odiya.

Look at the three now.

By any objective data-based parameter that measures economic performance, Naveen has so overwhelmingly outperformed Nitish that the latter’s claims to be a good governance role model have become a cruel joke. Mamata remains immensely charismatic and popular in West Bengal with overwhelmingly dominant electoral performances. But its relative economic performance has been plain abysmal.

Naveen has been chief minister since 2000, Nitish since 2005, and Mamata since 2011. All three are acknowledged as 'towering' leaders of their states. But what have they given to citizens in terms of social and physical infrastructure, incomes, and standards of living? Based on these parameters, Nitish Kumar is an unadulterated failure, Mamata has done far worse than she should and could have, while Naveen has been a revelatory success.

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The Data Reveals Nitish's True Legacy

The author would highlight three data points to reveal what a disaster Nitish Kumar has been. During the turn of the century, the per capita income of Bihar was a shade lower than that of Odisha while both competed with each other in having the largest poverty ratios. West Bengal was way ahead of both. In 2024, the per capita income of Odisha will be about 20 per cent higher than that of West Bengal and more than three times that of Nitish-led Bihar.

As per the Niti Aayog multi-dimensional poverty report, Bihar has the highest poverty ratio in India. Both Odisha and West Bengal are miles ahead with the latter doing slightly better. But if Greater Kolkata with its legacy of industrialisation is taken out of the equation, Odisha seems to have done better. Take the third and last data point. The per capita GST collection of Odisha in December 2023 was twice that of West Bengal and almost ten times that of Bihar.

Analysts can debate the political numbers, the alliance arithmetic, the caste equations, the polarisation card, and much more. But it should be hard economic data that gives the final verdict.

According to me, the biggest failure of Nitish Kumar (in his last term as chief minister) is not his repeated flip-flops; it is his inability to lift Bihar from the humiliating morass of poverty. It should also be a wake-up call for Mamata Didi.

Given the poll maths, she could sweep the state again in 2026 and rule till at least 2031. But what will be her legacy?

(Sutanu Guru is the Executive Director of the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Nitish Kumar   Bihar   Members Only 

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