360° Analysis

Transformation from the Top-down: Nitish Kumar’s Exemplary Leadership in Bihar


March 22, 2011 01:53 EDT

Over the last five years Bihar, a state of over 100 million, has undergone a transformation from the 'Mississippi of India' under the feared 'Jungle Raj' of kidnapping, murder and corruption to 'Bihar shining', with double-digit growth rates, floods of new investment and praise on The Economist's editorial page. Nitish Kumar's strong personal commitment to the developmental wellbeing of his state during his tenure as chief minister deserves much of the credit for this striking turnaround. No stranger to Bihar's intricate caste-based political equations, Kumar nevertheless persevered with politically unpopular initiatives designed not for his personal aggrandizement like so many of his predecessors, but for the state's benefit as a whole.

Nitish Kumar's electoral victory in 2005 over the wizard of caste politics, Lalu Prasad Yadav, was attributed by many observers as much to the efficiency of the Election Commission in ensuring a free and fair election, as to voter disenchantment with Lalu and his RJD. Business Week indeed noted at the time that the “incorruptible Election Commission” was “allowed to do its job in Bihar for the first time,” resulting in “Bihar's first free and fair election”. K.J. Rao, the Commission's observer in Bihar, endured fierce personal attacks and was afterwards hailed as a “hero”. For the latest assembly elections this past November, the Election Commission preemptively arrested over 60,000 potential troublemakers.

While Western news sources, and Nitish Kumar himself, have hailed his electoral victories as a sign that the Bihari electorate has moved beyond caste considerations at their ballot boxes, Kumar only came to power at the head of his own caste coalition. Kumar worked hard to strip away the so called extremely backwards castes (EBCs), and the lowest caste Muslims from Lalu's coalition.

Indeed, since gaining office, Kumar has used his new-found power to ensure they stick with him. In 2009 NDTV reported that his government not only granted EBCs reserved village assembly seats but also housing subsidies and free “monthly supplies of bathing soap”. This state largess has secured Kumar’s party with a vote bank that makes up roughly a third of state's population. As The Economist noted in 2005, Kumar has “learned the art of caste-coalition building”. Kumar's actions in office however, unlike those of Lalu Yadav, have brought benefits to the entire state, not just to his winning caste coalition.

Nitish Kumar's focus has undeniably been on developing his state. He told reporters on 17th March that he falls asleep at night thinking about the bureaucratic “red tapism” and the hurdle it poses for developmental programmes. The vast majority of Indian politicos would certainly not have bureaucratic inefficiencies on their minds as they fall asleep.

Upon taking office in 2005, Kumar moved to address the state's infrastructure problems “on a war footing”, massively investing in new roads and cutting the travel time between population centres substantially.  Kumar has coupled these concrete developmental programmes with meaningful political reforms.

While many argue that Kumar thus far has addressed only the proverbial low hanging fruits, tackling the dysfunctional nature of the state's governance was the logical first step in turning the state around. As the press has widely noted, government offices in 2005 were still using Remington typewriters and ordinary people were afraid to walk the streets at night. Since then Kumar has not only strengthened the police force but very publicly backed and legitimized their prosecution of prominent criminals, including even an elected assemblyman from his own party – a rare occurrence in India. His government has put at least a dozen legislators and members of parliament behind bars for charges ranging from kidnapping to murder. He also took steps to significantly streamline the approval process for development processes, closing off a major avenue of corruption. Kumar assured bureaucrats that he would personally honour their three year postings rather than solicit bribes to circumvent official channels and ensure plum postings for a select few. Kumar's administration has also de-politicized government appointments, filling teacher and doctor positions sometimes left vacant for a decade.

In December 2010 Kumar took a politically “unthinkable” step undoubtedly in the greater interest of the state as a whole- he boldly eliminated the discretionary Local Area Development accounts of state legislators. After NGO studies showed that 52 percent of the projects initiated in Bihar through these accounts were “sub-standard” and duplicative of existing state priorities, Kumar abolished them. Denying state elected officials their customary ten million rupees of state money for discretionary projects in their districts was politically risky and the act of a leader genuinely committed to the development of his state.

Not only has Kumar denied legislators their state sanctioned slush funds but he has also forced ranking bureaucrats and his cabinet ministers to publicly disclose their assets by threatening to withhold their salaries if they did not do so. By late February, 450,000 officials had complied. Kumar's commitment to infrastructure and human development and to the smooth functioning of a transparent government has directly caused Bihar's spectacular growth rates.

While most short analyses of Bihar celebrate its spectacular growth rate over the last five years, few note the pitifully small base the state is building from. Bihar would have to grow at its current rate of 10.5 percent for the next 18 years in order to match Maharashtra's current per capita income.

This eye-catching performance has largely been driven by public, not private spending. The state's debt has increased markedly, to almost 50 percent of GDP, as tax revenue has remained an unsustainable 5.5 percent of the same, the second lowest in the country. As The Economist points out, however, now businessmen “grumble” that they are unable to raise the capital for new investments whereas for the previous decade or more Bihar was the last place any sensible person would think to send their money.

Still for Bihar to continue growing as it has, Kumar must now tackle much more difficult structural and institutional problems. Kumar's deputy chief minister himself acknowledges that Kumar can only ensure so much progress whilst sitting in Patna. The state's “crisis of implementation” has to be solved collectively by the people themselves acting through their local village assemblies to hold bureaucrats accountable. Ensuring the rule of law, building roads, and staffing hospitals and schools were all necessary steps which enjoyed widespread support. Ensuring that people have the means to travel on those roads, that doctors and teachers actually report to their posts each day and transforming the state's still overwhelmingly agricultural economy are much more daunting tasks. At the same time the Maoist insurgency has a foothold in 30 of the state's 38 districts, starkly illustrating the dire straits of many Biharis.

Biharis themselves, however, strongly approve of Kumar's performance. His government enjoyed an astounding 88 percent approval rating in 2009 and his party won a smashing landslide victory in the November 2010 assembly election. Biharis understand what Nitish Kumar has done for their state and the developmental path he has chalked out and followed. The electorate's embrace of Kumar's agenda and record has finally given the lie to Lalu Yadav's famous proclamation that “development does not win votes”.

Nitish Kumar's personal commitment to developmental progress, transparency and good government stands in stark contrast to both his fellow politicians, both in Bihar and the rest of India. He has managed to govern his state not just in the interests of his electoral coalition, but in the larger interests of the citizenry as a whole, no mean feat in an India known for the utter venality of its politicians.


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