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Gamble on new Bihari card
- Nitish reveals how he plans to approach the elections
Nitish Kumar. Picture by Deepak Kumar

There’s probably no better place to get a symbolic measure of the changes that have come about almost imperceptibly in Bihar than the precincts of its most famous address for two decades: 1 Aane Marg.

Under Lalu Prasad, it was a subaltern open house overrun by cattle at the back and all hues of lounge lizards up front ó socialists and scamsters, scribes and singers, sycophants and scoundrels, in-laws and outlaws, a whole court confederacy that first put Lalu Prasad out of touch with his rooted reality and, then, out of power.

Successor Nitish Kumar has slowly banished all of that and hung a placard at the entrance: Man at Work. You enter if you have business, else you have no business entering. There’s a dedicated weekly hour for prayer, petition and contact, the rest of the time 1 Aane Marg’s gates open strictly by appointment. Detractors, even within his fold, tell you Nitish is paying a price for turning “unapproachable” but the man himself is persuaded of the virtues of the new order.

“Why have a mela all the time? The chief minister of a state has work to do, people eventually understand and respect that. I seldom refuse people who come with work,” he says.

Lalu Prasad was the opposite, but that’s a distinction implicitly suggested, not loudly stated. That’s Nitish.

Among all the lauded achievements of the chief executive of India’s unrivalled basket case, the most significant has scarcely got notice: it’s the demolition of one idea of Bihar and the crafting of another.

Nitish Kumar’s Bihar has come to fairly obliterate the once indelible emboss of Lalu Prasad’s Bihar ó functionality for famed flair, calibre for celebrated charisma, hope for hollow hype.

Irrespective of who grabs the mandate to rule the state later this year, the new ethic wrought by the incumbent will be hard to forsake and probably harder to follow. It’s a higher thing than welfare schemes and growth statistics that pervades today’s Bihar, it’s a thing of mood turning tangible ó they’ve begun to believe it is possible to aspire, even achieve.

“Five years ago,” says Upendra Singh, owner of a 24-hour eatery on the highway headed south of Patna, “I would have been afraid to drive here in my car, I would not have thought of installing dish television and musicÖ. But now, here I am, all night, and so are clients. I don’t want this to go.”

Nitish sits solitary under a thatched gazebo on the lawns of his official bungalow, a cordless phone and a tumbler of water by his side, bifocals low and quizzical on the ridge of his nose, bearing down on paperwork.

That’s a rare sight for a whole generation of Biharis. When did they last see their chief minister reading files? He tears himself away from the pile as we approach. “So?”

So? Five years gone, elections upon him, what’s to come?

Dekhiye,” he reflects calmly, surveying the clipped lawns and their pretty trim of flowerbeds; but doesn’t do the blatant thing of offering them as the central metaphor of his reign, “Badlaav toh aaya hai Bihar mein, aur woh chunav mein dikhega, mujhe koi chinta nahin hai (Let’s see, changes have certainly happened in Bihar, and they will show in the elections, I am not worried at all).”

Q: Does it worry you at all that you are under a heap of so much and fairly unprecedented praise for a Bihar chief minister?

A: It’s a mixed feeling. I am humbled and encouraged by the praise, I am happy that Bihar is getting positive attention. But equally, I feel the pressure. Too much remains to be done, and there is a moral and psychological responsibility to carry on from here. We have just begun. The praise is a warning to remain alert to tasks.

Q: Rahul Gandhi has had a short but rousing trip to Bihar. Your opponents, Lalu Prasad and (Ram Vilas) Paswan are gearing up their constituencies full time, there are fissures at the top of your own party, you have formidable dissidents. What makes you so sure you will be given another chance?

A: I sense that there is something in Bihar today that goes above all this, there is a new hope and pride, there is a sentiment that I can only call a new Bihari sentiment, a new consciousness. And that is a feeling that will not allow itself to be derailed or defeated. There is no anti-government sentiment, there is a pro-government sentiment. There is no tension in society, sukoon hai (there’s social peace). And that is riding on the hope that things can change for the better.

People don’t want a return to the past. Lakdi ki handi dobara aag par nahin charhti. (A wooden pot cannot be put on the stove twice.) There is a new Bihari identity that has emerged above caste and religion.

Q: You say that even though the BJP is your ally.

A: You make an unnecessary phantom of the BJP. Where have they interfered, or been able to? I have a distinctly pro-minority agenda and I have implemented it wholesomely. We are opening a chapter of the Aligarh Muslim University, we have punished the guilty of the Bhagalpur riots, we have special reservation and welfare schemes only aimed at Muslims. Who has come in the way of that? Nobody. The BJP has its own agenda; in Bihar, we run the government on the basis of an agreed common minimum programme of which minority welfare is a critical part.

Q: Are you not confident of leaving the BJP and charting out on your own?

A: Where is the need? This alliance has worked so well for so long, and it will work in the future too. The BJP has not opposed the social and political agenda and programme of my government. We have foregrounded the politics of development.

Q: Your critics say, though, that you are a divisive politician. You are favouring pasmanda (backward) Muslims, the extremely backward castes, the lesser Dalits. The argument is that your government is not about development, it is still about social engineering, only more micro engineering. Is your politics about development or about identity politics?

A: Where is the contradiction? Development is for everyone. Roads are not for Dalits or Muslims alone, and so too for schools and hospitals and public toilets and many other things we are doing, these are inclusive schemes. Women are coming out in Bihar as a result of what we have done, 50 per cent reservation in local bodies, for instance. Women belong to all castes and classes and religions. Besides, where is the harm in doing things for the needy? There are extremely poor and underprivileged people in Bihar, as elsewhere, governments have an obligation to go out of the way and do things for them. Naxalism is a result of governments not doing so, I have made this point very strongly. The poor need special attention.

Q: This might sound a strange question, but where is the money for all these projects suddenly coming from? Bihar has always complained of lack of funds, so what has changed?

A: Nothing, the money has always been there. If there was money available for the fodder scam, there was obviously a lot of money around, depends what you do with it. That’s the broad thing. But it is also about priorities and tasks. I am working with the same bureaucracy as earlier but now suddenly people are saying Bihar has good bureaucrats. Believe me they are the same people.

Q: You don’t fear that the upper castes, your votaries, will turn against you because of your wooing of the extremely backward constituency? There is also the controversy about land redistribution that has angered the upper castes?

A: Land redistribution is a ghost some people are trying to stoke to life? Where is that happening? There is a report by a committee, that is all, government has not taken a view. And let me tell you, such redistribution was first talked about by the Congress government in 1986. But there has to be a social atmosphere to discuss this, and at the moment that does not exist. It (the redistribution issue) is an artificial scare. And I say this again, my firm belief is that a new Bihari identity has emerged in the last few years which is above caste and class, it is a new pride we have generated and I am sure it will count.

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