Two years ago, when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America, the question was asked, who can be an Indian Obama? (see this article). The more naive or sycophantic journalists thought that young Rahul Gandhi could be one. Answering the question in these columns, I suggested that it was the low-key, uncharismatic Nitish Kumar who, in terms of having character, intelligence and drive, a pragmatic economic and social policy and, especially, having risen from obscurity with no familial connections in politics, was least dissimilar to the new American president. I then added that what India needed was not one Barack Obama, but 15 or 20 Nitish Kumars - that is to say, not one charismatic national leader, but very many focused and efficient leaders of states.
Now, with his alliance's emphatic victory in the recent state elections, the media has begun to take Nitish Kumar more seriously. Where previous regimes - notably those associated with Lalu Prasad and his family - promoted a politics of patronage, rewarding kinsfolk with jobs and rent-seeking opportunities, Nitish Kumar's government did not privilege particular families or castes. From the time he took office, the chief minister's priorities were clear - these were education, health, and the building of bridges, to provide connectivity in a land criss-crossed by many rivers and prone to periodic floods.
Exactly a year ago I visited Bihar, and spoke to a cross-section of people about the performance of the state government. The most striking achievement was in the restoration of law and order. Under Lalu's rule, murder, extortion and kidnapping were rife. Now, for the first time in years, women in Patna were able to go out on to the streets after dusk. Public safety in the districts had likewise improved. There was also a renewed sense of hope in the education sector, with greater enrolments and falling drop-out rates. The chief minister had promised every girl who entered high school a bicycle, a move that enhanced mobility and dignity, but prompted complaints from boys that they deserved the gift too.
Although he was allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party, Kumar was himself scrupulously non-communal, and often spoke of the need to lift Muslims out of poverty. Although his main rivals, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan, claimed to speak on behalf of the subaltern castes, the chief minister had identified a category of .Mahadalits., those who were most oppressed among the oppressed castes, and made special provision for their welfare. One other achievement was the restoration of professionalism in the higher bureaucracy; now, more appointments were made on the basis of competence rather than on the basis of caste or political influence.
No one predicted the scale of the eventual victory, the winning of three-quarters of the seats by the ruling alliance.
The criticisms notwithstanding, I left Bihar with the sense that Nitish Kumar was, all things considered, the most attractive state-level politician in India. He was not a child of privilege like Omar Abdullah or Naveen Patnaik, not a rank communalist like Narendra Modi, not a megalomaniac like Mayavati. He had kept his family at a safe distance, had practised an inclusive politics that embraced marginalized social groups, and had focused on welfare and infrastructural development. Although I am not a Bihari I felt myself increasingly drawn to the future of the state. It seemed necessary for him to win re-election, for then perhaps investors would feel confident enough to put real money into Bihar.
Besides, it needed at least a decade of moderately efficient administration to reverse the legacies of the past, to put schools and hospitals in working order, to completely restore confidence in the police, to see that the bridges and rural roads being planned on paper were actually built in practice.
A year ago, there was scepticism about Nitish Kumar's ability to win re-election. It was believed that the earthy populism of Lalu Prasad still resonated with voters, while the Congress's decision to go it alone would cut into the ruling alliance's vote share. In the months leading up to the election, however, reporters and pollsters concluded that the Janata Dal (United)-BJP alliance would most likely come back to power.
But no one predicted the scale of the eventual victory, the winning of three-quarters of the seats by the ruling alliance, the decimation of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (with Lalu's wife losing in two constituencies) and of the Lokshakti Party, and the pathetic showing of the Congress. The victory is an emphatic endorsement of Nitish Kumar and his government, and also, incidentally, of his insistence that the divisive figure of Narendra Modi be kept wholly out of the Bihar campaign.
While the national media has belatedly woken up to Nitish Kumar's importance, Kumar fortunately has no wish to follow the route the media would like to map out for him. At a press conference held after the results were announced, he was asked whether with the stunning popular validation of his policies, he would now seek a larger role on the national stage. Might he now be a future prime ministerial candidate? Kumar rejected the speculation. He had a job to do in Bihar, he said, and it was in Bihar that he would stay.
I was relieved to hear this, for I knew that the future of my own state, Karnataka, might have been radically different had a fine state politician not harboured premature national ambitions. In the 1980s, Ramakrishna Hegde served as chief minister in a state government led by the Janata Party and committed to social welfare and rural development. Effective panchayati raj institutions were put in place, and water taken to the arid, drought-prone areas of the state by a visionary minister, Abdul Nazir Saab, known popularly as Neer (Water) Saab.
Then, with Rajiv Gandhi coming under the Bofors and Shah Bano scanners, the national press began talking up Ramakrishna Hegde as a possible prime ministerial candidate. Hegde was seduced by the talk, and moved to Delhi. At about the same time, Nazir Saab died prematurely of a heart attack. In the absence of its two best leaders, the Karnataka Janata Party was riven by discord and factionalism. It was replaced by a corrupt Congress regime, and the administration of the state has never looked forward since.
Hegde's abandonment of his constituents was harmful not just for Karnataka. Had he stayed in Bangalore, and continued to run a decent administration, other state-level politicians might have been encouraged to emulate him. Perhaps the opportunity once lost by Karnataka will now be seized by Bihar.
If Nitish Kumar and his government deepen their commitment to social welfare, improve their schools and hospitals, and induce investors to set up
factories that produce decent and dignified jobs, they would give renewed hope to the citizens of Bihar, and perhaps also to the citizens of other
states, who would then demand of their politicians that they provide enduring social benefits rather than simply stoking social prejudice.