A billboard at Patna’s Fraser Road Crossing says it all: Jisne karaya pullon ka nirman, wahi kholega vikas ke dwar. The one who got the bridges built will open the doors of development. Alongside the slogan is a large picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a message: Bhajpa hai to bharosa hai. With BJP, there is trust.
The absence of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar from the BJP’s posters in Bihar has been a much talked-about subject during the election campaign. Kumar addressing Modi as shraddheya (the revered) and using his name to try to convince voters of his government’s development agenda draws sneers from his political adversaries who recall their stormy relations in the past. The same Kumar had put his foot down against Modi’s campaign in Bihar in the 2010 assembly polls. Amid rising chorus for badlav or change in Bihar, he is forced to put Modi in the front as his shield.
So, what has gone wrong? What happened to Brand Nitish?
Also read: ‘Nitish hatao’ chorus grows louder in Bihar
Modi is USP
Even pro-changers among Bihar voters grudgingly concede that they are getting 18-22 hours of power supply, a big leap from the old lantern days. Roads are way better. There is piped water supply in many households. So, the old bijli-paani-sadak slogan is not relevant anymore. Then there are so many welfare schemes touching people’s lives at every stage—from pre-natal to post-natal, including ration for pregnant women, vaccination, mid-day meals, cycles and uniforms for school children, free or subsidised grains, housing scheme, pensions and grants to poor families for the last rites of a member, among various others.
So, why is it that a section of people is yearning for a change of regime? Why is it that extremely backward classes (EBCs) and Mahadalits/Dalits largely endorse Nitish Kumar’s governance but remain non-committal?
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) may or may not pull it off in Bihar this time. But there are two factors that will remain true, regardless of the outcome of the election. First, Modi is more popular than ever in Bihar. It cuts across classes, castes and regions. Those who sound determined to vote out the NDA government in the state rue Modi’s backing of Nitish Kumar: “Why is Modiji diluting his own image?” A group of pro-changers having tea outside the state BJP headquarters last Wednesday afternoon told me: “Mukhiya ke chunav mein Nitish ji campaign karenge toh log mukhiya ko dekhenge ki CM ko? Wahi baat PM ka hai (If Nitish Kumar campaigns for election to the village headman, who would people look at—the candidate for the headman or the CM? The same is true of Modi’s campaign, too).”
That is not to suggest that there are more pro-changers than no-changers in Bihar today. We will come to know their respective numbers on 10 November when the results are declared. These instances are meant to suggest the amount of respect Modi commands in the state. Unlike the recent assembly elections in which Brand Modi failed to beat local factors, the Prime Minister’s image is the NDA’s USP in Bihar.
Second, Brand Nitish may have taken a hit, but isn’t finished yet. A large number of EBCs and Mahadalits still approve of his governance. At the same time, the clamour for badlav has an unmistakable ring to it. That brings us back to the original question about the probable reason for this yearning.
1974 batch syndrome
Interestingly, while voters may be a little vague about badlav, a section of the state bureaucracy, especially senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, knows what’s gone wrong: Nitish Kumar is suffering from the same “1974 batch syndrome”.
They refer to a group of leaders—Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav and late Ram Vilas Paswan, among others—who owe their political rise to their participation in Jayaprakash Narayan’s 1974 students’ movement. A senior bureaucrat who has worked in both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav-Rabri Devi governments told me: “They learned to lead movements from JP but their politics hasn’t grown or evolved to respond to aspirational youth. Their politics and governance are still about bijli-paani-sadak and social engineering guided by Lohia’s social justice ideas.” Many of his colleagues echo similar views, adding how these leaders have been “wary” of industrialisation and the role of the private sector because they think it would show them as “anti-poor”.
“I call it their tunnel vision,” said another bureaucrat.
It’s an irony that the Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti that Lalu and Nitish were part of (even before JP started leading the students’ movement) had started with unemployment as one of its main issues before it moved on to larger concerns like inflation and corruption. The issue of joblessness and corruption haunted the Lalu Yadav-Rabri Devi regime and Nitish Kumar is facing the heat now. Corruption has now become an oil without which the machine of governance doesn’t move in Bihar today, say officials.
Nitish Kumar did show interest in bringing investments to the state, which would have generated employment, but all those attempts—Bihar Industrial Incentive Policy 2011 and Bihar Industrial Investment Promotion Policy 2016, for instance—were half-hearted.
There are two basic requirements to draw big industries—availability of land and clearances. As it is, there are just 5,000 acres of industrial area in Bihar and the average size of each such area is just 200-225 acres, which is not good enough for even one big industry, say Bihar government officials. Since 1990, no industrial area has been developed. One being developed in Sikandarpur (around 300 acres), about 50 km from Patna, hasn’t taken off yet. And the less one talks about clearances, the better. “Industrialisation and urbanisation have to go hand in hand. Unfortunately, Nitish Kumar or his predecessors never seemed convinced of the need for either,” laments another IAS officer.
He created physical infrastructure in education but the quality of teachers is such that Bihari students will suffer for at least the next two decades. The Nitish Kumar government opened an ITI institute in every sub-division, but there is hardly any faculty there. The same is the case with new medical colleges.
“If you ask me, Nitish Kumar is still the sharpest among all CM contenders and pretenders but unfortunately, he remains totally invested in social engineering,” another bureaucrat says. It may, however, be attributed to Kumar’s early Lohiaite background and not JP. He was associated with the Samajwadi Yuvajan Sabha, a part of Lohia’s Samyukta Socialist Party, before he got drawn to JP.
Getting the job done
Nitish Kumar now finds himself on a sticky wicket as Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav’s manifesto promise of 10 lakh jobs draws resonance. While the BJP has sought to blunt it with a counter-offer of 19 lakh jobs, Nitish Kumar has dismissed all talks of jobs as “bogus” and “meant to mislead and confuse” people. His party colleagues have sought to know how Tejashwi would bring Rs 50,000 crore to provide 10 lakh government jobs.
But Tejashwi’s promise seems to be clicking with a section of the youth, especially because of Nitish Kumar’s failure to come up with a road map to create employment opportunities in his next term.
Some of his junior colleagues in the government, however, seem to be cognisant of the threat posed by Tejashwi’s job promise.
Addressing a gathering in Bhakharain village in Jhanjharpur’s Phulparas constituency last Friday evening, minister Sanjay Kumar Jha said, “It’s good that young people’s aspirations are growing. That’s what’s needed for progress in Bihar whose time has come. Who would have come to set up industries here without water, roads and power? Now that we have them all, money will come from Modiji and Nitishji will do it (bring industries).” This drew claps from youngsters present there.
The sound of these claps doesn’t seem to have reached Nitish Kumar yet. But he is known to be open to ideas and learning. In his book, The Battle for Bihar: Nitish Kumar and the Theatre of Power, journalist Arun Sinha writes that when he and his friends were visiting Kumar at the start of his second term as chief minister in November 2010, he said, “I want to learn English.” Sinha brought him an advanced dictionary, a thesaurus and Oxford Collocations. If only Modi had brought him a book on speaking the language of the youth! As it is, Kumar is telling voters that he will bring solar-powered lamp posts in their villages if they elect him again.
Views are personal.