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Did we overestimate Nitish Kumar's political acumen?

Wednesday, 7 May 2014 - 11:50am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

The story of Bihar’s ‘turnaround man’, Nitish Kumar, is way too puzzling for many political pundits. How can a ‘redeemer’, who till a year back was heaped with encomiums, suddenly become a subject of derision? It would be understandable if his former deputy chief minister is now singing a different tune. He once found Nitish prime ministerial material, and not Narendra Modi. Now, Sushil Modi — he goes by the name of SuMo — need not wrestle with words to proclaim that Nitish is heading the most corrupt and inefficient government, which is soft on terrorism.

SuMo is no exception. The whole lot of fellow travellers in the media and intelligentsia hold more or less the same view. Some are even wondering whether the time has come to write his political obituary, though there are still some who have not lost their objectivity and feel that like Lalu Prasad Yadav he too can make a comeback. The truth lies somewhere in between. Nitish never deserved to be praised to the skies, nor is there any scope to dump him in the dustbin of history as friends-turned-rivals would like to. The irony is that the same set of people are guilty of both these acts.

No doubt, like several other CMs, he started off well and did initiate some good work, for which he deserves credit. He, however, had a great advantage. Unlike in the early 1990s, Bihar was relatively peaceful and the polity was not as fractured as it used to be in the hey day of Mandal-Mandir movement. Nitish rose to the occasion as he got full support of the media, the bureaucracy and even judiciary.

As the BJP played a very significant role in his political revival after the 1995 assembly election debacle in which his outfit, the Samata Party, could win only seven out of 324 seats, he was naturally indebted to the saffron brigade. The latter got in him a backward caste alternative to keep Lalu Prasad out.

But in honouring Nitish with different prizes, the media barons missed the forest for the trees. Journalists in Bihar started working overtime to come up with some fantastic stories. They had no time to assess that the 11 per cent growth rate actually started a year before Nitish came to power on November 24, 2005. And there is a reason for it.

Bihar got divided and on November 15, 2000, the mineral-rich half came to be known as Jharkhand. So it was quite natural for the growth rate to plummet in the immediate post-bifurcation years. After 2003 it started picking up fast. But for reasons best known to the media it hardly pointed out this fact.

Similarly, the road sector witnessed a revolutionary change. But that could not have been possible without the generous central grant, be it in the highway sector or in Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana launched by the UPA government.

It was the Vajpayee government which launched the Golden Quadrilateral and East-West Corridor. This, however, does not suggest that the Nitish government did nothing to improve the condition of roads in Bihar.  What is strange is that a senior editor of a national daily came to Patna and did a front-page story showering praise on the Nitish government for making the Patna-Kishanganj trip possible in six hours.

What he did not mention was that the road he had travelled was East-West Corridor, which starts from Silchar and ends in Porbandar. It was entirely a central government project.

A year after JD(U)’s split with the BJP, the same lot is questioning as to how a Chief Minister could take credit for the establishment of an IIT, central universities, Nalanda University and centre-sponsored schemes like National Rural Health Mission.

The same opinion-making class which once hailed the cycle and uniform-distribution schemes, are now talking of how resources for these schemes had been stolen. The media has suddenly been reminded of uterus scam, industrial land scam, total breakdown in law and order and appointment of a couple of lakhs of illiterate and semi-literate school teachers under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.

The political compulsion — the fear of a revival of Lalu Prasad — kept the BJP and JD(U) united. Many from the upper caste watched helplessly even as Nitish took a different road and started promoting the Extremely Backward Castes and Dalits. They remained largely silent when Nitish, way back in 2006, increased the reservation for women in the rural and urban local bodies from 33 to 50 per cent and announced a 20 per cent quota for the EBCs. The Dalits already had 16 per cent quota. Thus only 14 per cent seats were left for the males of other castes. Now when panchayats enjoy so much power this decision was bound to create resentment.

Then came the constitution of the Bandyopadhyay Commission, which recommended empowerment of share-croppers as in West Bengal. The landed upper castes reacted with a massive Kisan Mahapanchayat in Patna on May 10, 2010. Nitish was forced to abandon the idea. This class once again voted for the NDA in the assembly elections held later the same year. He made an attempt to empower 21 out of the 22 Dalit sub-castes — and save Paswans — and declared all of them Mahadalits.

The vocal upper castes, till then votaries of the NDA, grew suspicious of these moves. Though the BJP was part of all these decisions then, yet the upper castes started looking towards the saffron brigade as a natural ally. Nitish sensed their growing hostility towards him. He tried to replace them with 16.5 per cent Muslims as a section of them voted for the NDA in 2009 and 2010 elections. What he failed to assess was  that there was no fear of NaMo then. His gamble with Muslims backfired as the community found Lalu, backed by Yadav votes, better equipped to checkmate Modi.

When he snapped ties with the BJP on June 16 last, the upper castes were bound to desert him. Among them, the anti-Nitish factor is more dominant than an anti-Congress feeling. But Nitish cannot be written off as he had carved out his constituency among the EBCs and Mahadalits. True, some of them have been influenced by the NaMo effect in the Lok Sabha polls, but they may return to the JD(U) fold in 2015 assembly elections, provided Team Nitish remains intact even after getting a drubbing on May 16.

The author is senior freelance journalist based in Patna

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