Patna Diary Columns

Nitish Kumar’s unfinished agenda

Bihar Chief Minister greeting supporters in Patna after the Grand Alliance's victory in the State Assembly elections.  

As you drive into Patna’s sprawling Old Secretariat, its striking red-tiled mansard roof and grand clock tower standing out in sharp relief, an imposing bronze statue on the western end of its lush lawns catches your eye: it is of Sri Krishna Sinha, one of the architects of modern Bihar, and its first Chief Minister. Nitish Kumar, already the second longest serving chief executive of the State, will be competing for a similar place in history, after he is sworn in as Chief Minister today.

Smita Gupta
But if Mr. Kumar brings enormous goodwill to his job, evident during the recent elections, the challenges he will face in his third term are equally huge. He will not just have to ensure that the stormtroopers of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) don’t tarnish his record, but will also have to battle the perception that his government is not socially representative enough. Even more important for his development agenda, his negotiating skills will be stretched to the limit as he deals with an unfriendly Centre to overcome what the bureaucracy believes will be his biggest stumbling block — a cash crunch.

The popular view is that the equation between Mr. Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and the RJD — especially keeping the Yadav community, out of power for a decade, in check — will occupy a great deal of his time. The plus, of course, is that Lalu Prasad is as keen as Mr. Kumar that this Grand Alliance succeeds, even though his aspirations are different. Only too aware that his conviction prevents him from holding office, his ambitions centre around the political future of his children, Tej Pratap, Tejasvi (both MLAs now) and daughter Misa Bharati, who he wants to send to Parliament. In this endeavour, clearly, he needs Mr. Kumar to play the role, as an RJD MLA put it, of “guardian”.

That will set Mr. Prasad free to travel the country to start a people’s movement against the BJP and communal forces. He has already announced that his first journey will be to Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency. This suits Mr. Kumar, who hopes one day to be Prime Minister, an ambition he cannot fulfil without the help of Mr. Prasad, whose “janadhaar” (mass support) powered the Grand Alliance to victory.

Indeed, the two men are joined together not just by the camaraderie of the past when they were part of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement in the 1970s, or memories of the manner in which Mr. Kumar backed Mr. Prasad for chief ministership in 1990 — there is also the promise of a shared future. The two men are very conscious that their hopes and ambitions are closely tied to the success of the government they will run together.

Mr. Kumar’s new tenure will also mark the beginning of a more ideologically cohesive government than the one he ran till 2013 with the help of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For unlike the BJP, the RJD and the Congress, the other members of the Grand Alliance that Mr. Kumar heads, also subscribe to his secular, socially inclusive and welfarist world view, something that came through sharply during the recent election campaign.

But on the obverse side, since a combination of backward, Scheduled Caste and Muslim votes has brought him to power, Mr. Kumar will have to be seen working to balance the interests of the upper castes with those of the core constituents of the political alliance he heads. For it was the economic inclusion — in the form of large government contracts, particularly to the powerful Bhumihars — that played a key role between 2005 and 2013 in maintaining social equilibrium and making the task of ensuring law and order that much easier: indeed, the bhoomi senas that held sway in southern Bihar all but vanished during this period.

Conscious that he will have to face this challenge squarely, Mr. Kumar held out an olive branch to the BJP-led NDA within hours of the results pouring in on November 8: he wanted the bitterness of the election campaign to end, he said, as he invited the Opposition to work closely with his government, even as he stressed that he would cater to all communities. The message to the upper castes was that even though only a small section voted for the Grand Alliance, he intended to address their concerns as well.

Meanwhile, in the labyrinthine corridors of Patna’s New Secretariat — or Vikas Bhawan — the conversation is different. It centres around where Mr. Kumar will get the Rs 2.70 lakh crore he needs to finance the detailed seven-point programme he had promised to implement if he got re-elected: youth employment and skill development, women empowerment, electricity, clean drinking water and sewage disposal, sanitation, road infrastructure, and higher education.

Clearly, Mr. Kumar has his work cut out for him.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 11:58:19 PM |

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