Nitish used astuteness and duplicity to get, and keep, power, says this political biography
“Single man”: plougher of a lonely furrow, solitary crusader for ‘Naya Bihar’, conductor of a one-man orchestra; equally, a ‘singular man’: “the only modern leader in northern India”, unique in the annals of Bihar. The latter is perhaps a more appropriate title for Sankarshan Thakur’s account of the life and times of Nitish Kumar. The Nitish that emerges from his book is not a particularly memorable personality, nor a born leader or visionary, not even very interesting. What marks him out is his courage to be different and his dedication to making a difference.
Very early in his career Nitish Kumar resolved: I shall come to power by hook or by crook, but once I have achieved that I will do good. Influenced by the realpolitik of the Arthashastra, whose author he fondly refers to as “Professor Chanakya”, Nitish used astuteness and duplicity to get, and keep, power: an illustration being his continuation in the NDA alliance – with his sights set on the chief ministership of Bihar – even in the face of his known revulsion for the 2002 Gujarat riots. The revival and resurgence of Bihar, he convinced himself, justified compromises made along the way.
Sankarshan Thakur spent his childhood in Patna — “not a nice place to be”, as he asserts in the very first line of his book. Glad to get away, but unable to get Bihar out of his system, he has written extensively about the state, including a book on Lalu Prasad Yadav. In Single Man, Thakur maunders through his own memories and experiences of Bihar with gratuitous tit-bits about his antecedents. Embarrassed at the obloquy heaped on Biharis, ruing the degradation and despondency of life in the state, observing everywhere the refuse, excrement and “rivers of piss”, he exults at a “new Bihari sentiment, a new consciousness” that Nitish Kumar’s rule has ushered. “What was really changing”, he declares, “was that hope was born again.” Thakur’s glee at the “new Bihar” leads to portrayal of his subject in an especially kindly light.
Nitish never pursued an occupation other than politics. Intelligent and bookish – though there was not much reading matter at home – and a qualified engineer, he never worked to earn a regular salary. His father was a man of modest means, a disgruntled Congressman and ayurveda practitioner, whose interest in politics may have kindled a spark in his son. Influenced by Lohia’s writings, Nitish entered the vibrant world of Patna’s student politics and gravitated towards Jaya Prakash Narayan and the anti-Emergency movement. He is remembered as “a sober, well-read boy, who could be relied upon to draft resolutions and press releases”, but contemporaries did not mark him out as a leader of the future.
When his father arranged his marriage and accepted a dowry without his knowledge, Nitish gave evidence of his mettle by insisting that it be returned. But he did not distinguish himself as a householder; family life came a distant second to politics. His wife spent most of her life in her parents’ home, not even moving into the chief minister’s residence. Until he was elected to the state assembly for the first time in 1985, Nitish had no fixed address – “a neat and focused vagabond” earning sporadic income from his writings, he lived off the kindness of his father and largesse of friends. Although his focus was clear, his political journey was far from smooth. After losing his first two attempts at entering the state assembly he even considered reverting to engineering for a livelihood.
Single Man details at length the twists and turns of Nitish Kumar’s political career. Having met with the leading players in Bihar politics, and held extensive interviews with Nitish himself and accompanied him on tours, including a much-acclaimed one to Pakistan, Sankarshan Thakur engagingly discusses events and personalities central to Nitish’s story. As the book is essentially about Bihar, Nitish’s tenure in the central ministries of agriculture and railways, where he initiated wide-ranging reforms, is ignored.
As a legislator, Nitish’s reputation quickly grew and he played a key role in Lalu Prasad Yadav becoming leader of the Opposition in 1989 and Chief Minister soon after – “an epochal error” that he would bitterly regret. The split with Lalu was not long in coming. In Nitish’s words: “This is the beginning of our campaign…..to throw him out and deliver Bihar back to those who live up to the high standards of JP and Karpoori [Thakur] and to the wishes of the people”.
Overthrowing Lalu with his messiah-like popularity necessitated splitting of the Backward Caste vote and aligning with the BJP at the cost of his socialist and secular persuasions. Political sleight delivered the chief ministership to Nitish for a brief and ignominious seven days in 2000, but five years later nothing could come between him and his dream of ‘Naya Bihar’.
Thakur highlights the contrast between the Bihars of Nitish and Lalu: “functionality for flamboyance, demonstrable commitment for celebrated charisma, a sense of hope for hollow hype”. But the dream seems to be unravelling; the alliance with the BJP lies in tatters, the low-hanging fruit have been plucked so to speak, crime and corruption are rising, the “one-man enterprise” is crumbling, and the realisation dawns that even with the highest growth rate among all states it will be decades before Bihar catches up. The ‘single man’ will have to re-invent himself if Naya Bihar is to be more than a mere flash in the pan.
SINGLE MAN — The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar: Sankarshan Thakur; HarperCollins Publishers, A-53, Sector 57, Noida-201301. Rs. 599.