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April 1, 2010

The New Bihar

Is the sick man of India finally on the way to being resuscitated? The signs are definitely there. Recent newspaper headlines blazed a claim which a few years ago would have been considered an April Fool’s joke: Bihar’s growth rate has exceeded all states in India save Gujarat. Notwithstanding the dispute over the statistical integrity of Bihar’s growth figures, what is undeniable is that Nitish Kumar has changed the conversation on Bihar. A state that had become the laughingstock of the nation—as much due to its economic failings as to the antics of its leaders—is finally being taken seriously.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Kumar is the currently the darling of the Delhi-based media and the chatterati, credited with turning around a moribund state administration. Mr Kumar’s administrative acumen is contrasted  with that of Lalu Prasad Yadav, his predecessor. Indeed, in perhaps the greatest tribute to the chief minister, Mr Yadav, who routinely dismissed the need for development when in power, now claims that his rival fails on the metric he so proudly rejected. How real and sustainable the transformation in Bihar is may be open to dispute—yet, the fact that Bihar is now part of a positive national discourse is a remarkable achievement of the Nitish Kumar government.

But the incessant focus on Mr Kumar and his metamorphosis as the face of New Bihar brings into sharp focus the dangers of personality driven politics. Now, Indian politics has always been dominated by larger-than-life personalities, and the importance of transformational leadership has been recognised in almost every sphere of human endeavour. Nevertheless, revolutions driven solely by personalities of their leaders tend to fizzle out. In the context of Bihar, one needs to look no further than Mr Yadav to understand this.

Mr Yadav’s takeover in Bihar was an important step in empowerment of other backward classes (OBCs) in the state’s complex polity. As he routinely argued, he offered them izzat (self-respect or dignity), which a caste-ridden feudal society had denied them for centuries. Mr Yadav, unfortunately, never moved beyond mere platitudes. Comfortable in his cocoon, and ignoring the voices of reason that pointed out that the burden of his disdain for governance was disproportionately borne by the very poor whose interests he ostensibly championed, he left the people who voted for him in a worse condition than he had found them in. While he was too busy entertaining the press with earthy sound bites, Bihar degenerated into a state where Ambedkar’s warning about the “grammar of anarchy” found its fullest expression.

As Tehelka argues in a recent cover story, Mr Kumar is beginning to be driven by the same sense of self-righteousness. Whether it is his increasing reliance on politics of caste mobilisation or the recent rumbles in his own party over accusations of dictatorial politics and the prospect of political revolt, it appears that Mr Kumar, buoyed by a worshipful media and recent electoral success is ensconced in his own cocoon. Messianic halo has an unsettling tendency to arrive unannounced. And if the history of Indian politics is any guide, men far greater than Mr Kumar have succumbed to it. Perhaps, the most serious manifestation of Mr Kumar’s hubris is his marked reluctance to act against the Naxalite threat ravaging much of the region. Considering that Naxalites have thrived by operating across state borders, Mr Kumar’s deliberate inaction and his naïve belief in the politics of healing is dangerous for India’s national security interests.

Mr Kumar’s leadership in Bihar deserves to be widely praised. Yet, his job has just begun, and there is a long way to go before Bihar can be considered developed even in comparison to other Indian states. The conversation over Mr Kumar and Bihar needs to move to a more mature discourse which is forthcoming with its praise but not afraid of offering constructive criticism. Civil society needs to remember the lessons from past fiascos resulting from putting too much faith in personalities. No one man can be a state’s saviour—certainly not in a democracy where continuance in power simply cannot be guaranteed.

More importantly, it is essential that Mr Kumar set into motion the process of long term institutional reforms so that Bihar’s journey is no longer held captive by caprices and whims of its leaders. Instead of appearing to make himself indispensable, the greatest contribution Mr Kumar can make to Bihar’s regeneration to make himself incidental to the process. Mr Kumar must also remember that he has hitherto benefited from low expectations of the people of Bihar. But if the Nitish revolution rolls on, expectations will increase dramatically and he will be required to provide much more than the minimal level of governance. At that stage, providing the tools for his people to compete in the economy of new India, and creating economic opportunities—not merely by government schemes—by unshackling the latent entrepreneurial spirit of Bihar will be imperative for him. If he wins the assembly elections scheduled for November 2010 then that should be Mr Kumar’s agenda for next five years.

Close parallels can be drawn between Mr Kumar and P Chidambaram who took over the dysfunctional Union home ministry after the disastrous tenure of Shivraj Patil. Widely praised for his stewardship of the home ministry, Mr Chidambaram in a recent interview stressed the importance of institutional reforms and endorsed enthusiastically the idea of a more process-driven national security apparatus instead of overt reliance on personalities. That is a model Mr Kumar needs to adopt.


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