Dear Nitish Kumar, Bihar Expected More. Here’s What You Can Change
The Nitish regime did a lot – but it did not go beyond fixing the basics in Bihar. And that’s where it went wrong.
I intend to be brutally honest here, expressing views with all the biases and prejudices I have.
Being a Bihari, I have my own set of prejudices about the state. And let me candidly admit that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar happens to be one of the rare politicians I have admired all my adult life.
I remember literally begging him to do something to become the chief minister of Bihar and lift the spirits of scores of Biharis. That was sometime in 1997. He was gracious enough to listen to my plea over the phone.
‘Fanboying’ Over Nitish Kumar
I wrote an article and almost got it published in early 2010, only a few months before the assembly elections in Bihar. It read like a fanboy letter, arguing why Nitish Kumar happens to be the best thing that has happened to the state. My colleagues then requested me not to get it published as it was like propaganda material as opposed to a proper journalistic piece.
On both the occasions – in 1997 and in 2010 – I was aware that I had crossed the boundary that each one in my profession should strictly follow. But a Nitish admirer in me compelled to do these things almost like reflex actions.
During the course of 2015 assembly elections, I got a chance to travel across many parts of Bihar. After multiple interactions with people in more than 10 districts, I would get an impression of the kind of goodwill Nitish Kumar enjoyed even after ten years of incumbency was unprecedented.
Nitish Regime Didn’t Go Beyond Fixing The Basics
What did change after that? How could Nitish’s image become a liability for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of which he was one of the strongest pillars in the state until recently?
To Nitish and his supporters, the latest verdict would seem like a betrayal.
They would say – ‘we delivered roads, bridges and electricity, fixed law and order, made the state machinery functional, and gave the taste of high economic growth’ – ‘how could Biharis be so ungrateful?’
My response would be: After 15 years of the Nitish government, shouldn’t the people be craving to move beyond fixing the basics? What we have seen in the last 15 years is the reversal of underperformance – on growth, law and order, and roads and bridges – of preceding years.
The reversal had to be followed up with a solid road map on how to forge ahead and bridge the gap with developed states. The Nitish regime did not go beyond fixing the basics.
Nitish Kumar’s Role In Women Empowerment
Of the many things the Nitish government did, I would put two reforms in the category of ‘remarkable decisions’ with far-reaching consequences.
The decisions to reserve 50 percent seats for women in panchayat bodies, and distributing bicycles to school girls were such decisions.
The benefits are well documented. Suffice here to list out just a few of them. The Bihar Gender Report Card quotes a study that says that “girls who received bicycles have a 27.5 percent higher chance of completing Grade 10; 22.9 percent higher likelihood of completing schooling, and a 5 percent greater chance of completing college, than girls who did not.”
In 2006, Bihar became the first state to reserve half of the seats in panchayat bodies for women. The results have been dramatic – the state’s maternal and infant mortality rates have nearly halved since 2006. While the infant mortality rate has dropped from 60 in 2006 to 35 in 2017, the MMR has dropped to 165 from 315 during the same period.
The mean age of marriage increased from 18.59 in 2001 to 21.02 in 2011. In percentage terms, the growth was equal to the cumulative growth in preceding four decades.
As a result, as one government report highlights, “the fertility rates have fallen by 2.7 percent per annum over the 2006-10 period – a faster decline than the decline of 1.6 percent per annum in the preceding five years”.
Nitish Kumar Helped Improve Law & Order But Didn’t Invest Enough In Political Capital
Have we seen such dramatic results of any of the schemes anywhere in the country? They were bold steps when introduced. More so in the context of Bihar. But did Nitish invest enough political capital to make them a mass movement for even more dramatic results? Nitish treated these schemes like any other administrative reform, without backing them politically.
On the brighter side, we must also add his bit to improve the law and order situation in Bihar. Speedy trial through fast track courts and high conviction rates ensured that, in terms of popular perception at least, Bihar became as peaceful as any other state.
This was huge change considering that prior to the Nitish era, the state machinery had all but collapsed. What helped was Nitish’s simultaneous attempt to break the regional dominance of certain caste groups. As a result of his social engineering initiatives, erstwhile dominant castes ceased to have disproportionate access to political power and therefore lost the capacity to influence administration.
Nitish’s social engineering fetched him votes and helped the state shed its ‘unruly’ tag. Ironically, Nitish will have to share a part of the responsibility for undoing whatever he sought to achieve through social engineering.
Two Parts To The 15-Year Nitish Era
A party or a coalition has to have a support of social groups. Frequent shift confuses the support base and disturbs the equilibrium. Nitish has done this three times in the last seven years – by breaking away from the NDA in 2013, by joining Lalu Prasad’s RJD in 2015 and then coming back to the NDA in 2017. Once the social equilibrium is disturbed, maintaining law and order becomes quite challenging. In Bihar, data may not reflect the change but you can smell it in the air.
15 years of the Nitish era may therefore be divided into two parts. The one from 2005 to 2013 will be categorised as a period of rapid changes, rightly applauded by the cheering Biharis.
And the second one starting 2013 has been an unsure regime looking for a direction. While the cheering crowd would become ecstatic in the first phase after reading about the promises of Rata Tata and Mukesh Ambani to invest in Bihar, the rhetoric in the second phase had nothing to feel elated about. The events of the first phase had made my fellow Biharis dream big. There was a hope of a turnaround, of seeing the state join the ranks of more developed ones.
Nitish Kumar Has A New Innings – To Do Better
Now, Nitish Kumar comes across as someone who is oblivious to the growing aspirations of Biharis. He seems more focused on protecting his political turf.
A Nitish supporter inside me is not so pleased with the run of events. Hence, a sense of indifference.
It is very unlikely that Nitish Kumar will get to read what I have written here. However, I would like one of his aides to tell him that, now that he is about to start his new innings, Bihar expected a lot more from him. He still has a chance to change the mood – from one of chalta hai to a hope of a better tomorrow.
(The author is an occasional writer and an aspiring entrepreneur. He tweets @Mayankprem. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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