What Nitish Kumar had confidently told Governance Now three months ago comes true
Ajay Singh | November 24, 2010
What can explain the dramatic results of the Bihar assembly elections? A clear answer, as Nitish Kumar said in his interview with Governance Now more than three months ago, is that the Grammar of Bihar politics had changed even as Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan were following the old syllabus. Here is the interview that first appeared in the August 15-31 issue of the Governance Now magazine.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has the image of a quiet and contented politician. Unlike several of his peers, he shuns rhetoric and yet makes his point cogently to his audience in Bihar. Having launched his campaign seeking to renew the mandate in the next assembly elections, Kumar has been harping on development and Bihari pride, themes that are alien to the state’s political culture dominated as it has long been by the three Cs — caste, criminals and cash. Has he been able to induce any change in Bihar’s political grammar? Or is he chasing a chimera in a society inured to traditional caste hostilities and enamoured of ‘caste Robinhoods’? There are many questions that beg answers. In a wide-ranging interview with Ajay Singh, Nitish Kumar talks about his politics, his performance in the last five years, and his plans for the future.
How do you rate the performance of the government you have headed since November 2005?
I can say with ample satisfaction that I have tried my level best to provide good governance in Bihar. I have made every effort to make the administration accountable to the people and to empower the people. I would not say that I have given the ideal governance. There may be certain shortcomings in my government’s functioning. And there is no ideal government that can satisfy everyone. But nobody can find fault with me for not making an attempt. My intentions were honest. That is a matter of great satisfaction for me.
When you took over five years ago what exactly were your concerns? How did you plan to address them?
Law and order was my first priority. When I held my first meeting with police officers, I learnt to my dismay that average age of constables in Bihar was 38 years. That meant that there was no infusion of young blood in our police force for the past 10 years. I found the constabulary to be demoralised. I inducted nearly 12,000 constables to infuse young blood in the police and increase the police-citizen ratio. Even now, Bihar’s police-citizen ratio of 69 personnel for a lakh of population is the lowest in the country, as against the national average of 124. We have to recruit 45,000-50,000 constables more to reach the national average. Constables are being given allowance for uniforms to give the police a semblance of smartly-dressed and professional force. They are being trained in a milieu that is suited to the state.
But Bihar does not have proper training institutes.
We have overcome that constraint. Our Bhagalpur training centre has been training constables and building their capacity. In fact, it’s one of the oldest police training centres in the country. I rejected the proposal to send our constables for training to other states. You see, every decision has to be seen in social perspective. If we start sending constables to other states, they will be guided by the social milieu of those states. For better and rigorous training, our constables have undergone training with the BSF and the CRPF. About 50-odd constables were sacked for opposing the training. Everyone has now fallen in line. You can see the difference now as constables in Bihar are not only well-dressed but also appear to be well-disciplined and trained.
How did you deal with the so-called criminals who enjoyed the image of ‘caste Robinhoods’ and infiltrated the legislature? Some of them were in your party too.
My primary task was to build governance from the scratch. I had inherited the legacy of absence of governance. My focus on restoring confidence of the police was intended to restore the authority of the state. Once we succeeded in that, our next step was to check criminality. We devised a way for speedy trials. The police launched a campaign to bring all those carrying illegal weapons to book. In fact, under the Arms Act, the policemen appear as witnesses. Speedy trials have enabled higher conviction rates; in the last five years, 49,000 people have been convicted. That has emboldened people to complain against gangsters irrespective of the political affiliations of the latter. One by one, people with criminal antecedents have found themselves caught in the stranglehold of law. Some of them were from my party. But my message to the police was simple: let the law take its course without caring for political affiliations.
Have you purged the political space of criminals? Can you safely say that Bihar politics has been decriminalised?
I am under no illusion to make such a tall claim. There may be people with criminal antecedents even in my party. This is a social phenomenon that cannot be addressed by governance alone. My limited objective has been to instill confidence in the people and help them overcome their fear. If anyone violates the law, he will be dealt with as per the rule book. And there will be no exception. I can say it with satisfaction that Bihar is free of fear now. You look at school-going girls riding their cycles in hordes in every village. Not only in Patna, but even in smaller towns, businessmen are not afraid of keeping their shops open till late in the night. Businessmen are returning to set up their projects in Bihar. This is certainly a great achievement that gives me immense satisfaction.
How have you made the bureaucracy respond to your initiatives? Did you choose a set of bureaucrats or decide to make do with the same people?
It had been a strange situation in Bihar; a set of bureaucrats believed in inaction, which also meant that they became unaccountable over the years. There is a catch-phrase: “If you don’t do anything, you won’t be caught.” So I called a meeting of all senior officials and told them plainly: you will also be accountable for any act of omission. At the same time, I assured them that they would be adequately protected even if they erred in the line of duty. I generated confidence among officials who started performing very well. There may be some who still believe in non-action. It is better to ignore them and continue with your work.
By and large I have relied on the same set of bureaucrats. In Indian system, bureaucracy is permanent. Hence it is futile to pick and choose. I continued with the existing staff and they delivered good results.
There have been insinuations that you are over-dependent on bureaucrats. How correct is that perception?
Let them suggest any other model of governance and I will rely on that. This is an absurd insinuation as I have no other choice but to rely on bureaucracy which is subservient to the political executive. I have made it a part of their duty to hold regular interaction with people. In a recent survey, we found that 88 per cent of the respondents know about this practice of interaction between officials and the citizens. They want their grievances redressed and come to me if the officials are not able to help them. This process has established a direct link between the administration and the citizens, without intermediaries like local leaders and legislators, some of whom have made a hullabaloo over this change. The chief secretary has been asked to monitor the progress of these interactions every month. The public mindset will gradually get attuned to this new culture of governance. I have told my party leaders and legislators to do other works for citizens’ welfare instead of craving for an intermediary role between people and bureaucracy.
How did you prioritise your work? If you inherited the legacy of non-governance, it might have required some serious planning to overcome that shortcoming.
When I took over, I had mentally prepared some do’s and don’ts. I had made up my mind to work for a society free of fear even if I were to lose my government in the process. But certainly, I was cautious enough not to start anything radical for which the society was not prepared. After building people’s confidence in the authority of the state, my next focus was human resources and infrastructure. We built over 15,000 schools and increased enrolment. Only four years ago, a study pointed out that 25 lakh children had no access to formal education. Since then that number has been brought down to eight lakh, meaning a drastic increase in enrolment of students in primary schools. Then we had a huge shortfall of teachers. Over two lakh primary teachers were appointed. Two lakh more teachers need to be appointed.
But there is a general complaint that quality of teaching is poor. Isn’t there a big gap in teachers’ training?
In some cases, it could be a genuine complaint. But by and large, teachers are attending schools and imparting good education. I am not claiming that I have addressed the quality issue. My priority had to be quantity. Once the enrolment increased, we were sure that the quality of education would improve. The government has been conducting eligibility test for recruitment of teachers. And teachers are being recruited through the panchayats and urban local bodies. The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) has also been conducting mid-course training for all teachers. We have stopped giving salary increments to teachers who failed their state-level eligibility test.
Given the kind of backlog we had, I did not wait to address the problem. Taiyari karte rahte to samay nikal jata (preparations would have inordinately delayed the job). I began the job in right earnest. The next focus would certainly be on quality.
There was an expectation that investment would come to Bihar during your rule. That did not happen. Why is it that your government could not attract private investment?
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the centre is responsible for that. We got private investment proposals for sugar industry and thermal power plants, but the centre has been throwing spanner in the works. We wanted to make Bihar an ethanol hub, but it was suddenly decided that all greenfield projects of sugar industry will need central government’s approval. And we have not been given approval. There were many proposals to set up thermal power plants, but we were not given coal linkages. There has been no progress on these projects. That the Centre is determined to stall Bihar’s development is evident by the fact that now we are not allowed to give water to thermal power plants. We may suffer floods year after year, but we need approval of the Central Water Commission for allocating river water to thermal power plants. The centre’s suspect intentions are also borne out by the fact that the prime minister has been avoiding meeting an all-party delegation from Bihar for four years on the issue of giving special category status to the state.
But I learnt that you are given special attention by the prime minister whenever he hosts any function in Delhi?
That is true. But the prime minister is also accountable to a political party. And the problem with the Congress is that it opposes any move that my government initiates, including the ones whose only aim is to spur economic growth.
How is your equation with the BJP now? Is there still ill will over the episode that preceded the BJP’s national executive committee meeting in Patna, particularly your reaction to the advertisement allegedly put up by Narendra Modi?
That entire episode be best forgotten. My experience with the BJP in running the government has been excellent. We are keen to continue this coalition as it is best suited to the state. The coalition came to power five years ago on the promise of bringing change in Bihar. And let me tell you on all issues, the BJP has been always helpful, including on the issue of bringing madarsas into mainstream education and introducing incentives for Muslim girl students.
Have you finalised seat-sharing with the BJP? Do you still insist on not allowing Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi to campaign in Bihar?
Our coalition is intact. Nitty-gritty is being worked out. But in my recent meetings with the BJP leaders, I tried to convince them that it would be wrong to introduce new elements in the Bihar election campaign. I asked them whether they would agree to contest on less number of seats if I request them to do so? They will not. So how can they expect me to allow introduction of new elements in the campaign? They seem to understand my point of view.
Are you not seeking a larger share of seats this time as the build-up to the election seems to be veering around your personality and performance?
I am never guided by such expansionist ambition. The thought that my party should contest more seats never crossed my mind. My only intention was to be pragmatic in running the coalition.
How do you explain the trend of your old friends deserting you? Have you ever tried to analyse why this is happening?
Our political history is full of such tendencies. Of course, it hurts when someone who has been close to you for decades deserts you and makes wild allegations against you. But how can I help it? I am focused on my goal and do not let such trivialities distract me. There is a Bihari parable that says, “You don’t try to start killing flies when they bother you during mealtimes; you just drive them away with one hand and continue eating with the other.” My objective is certainly larger than those trivialities.
Don’t you regard such parting of ways as a setback?
Not in the least. My future goal is more important.
What are your future goals? If you are re-elected to office, what will be your focus areas?
My focus would be to consolidate the gains that we have made. After improving infrastructure, my next aim would be to attract private investments. Bihar’s model of development would be different from other states. It cannot be based on large manufacturing units. Agro-based industries and food processing would be the key to the state’s development. I need to focus more on improvement of power situation. We have already undertaken some projects which may substantially take care of the state’s energy needs. I believe Bihar’s overall development needs to be judged on whether we are able to stop labour from migrating to other places in search of just two square meals a day. There is nothing wrong if people go out of the state for a better life. But migration for sustenance has to be stopped through a strong dose of development. That is our future plan. And we will be able to achieve this by diverting more resources to rural welfare schemes and lifting a large number of people from their below-poverty-line status. Once we attain this level, Bihar will not look back. I strongly feel that there is an inherent strength in this society. Yahan ke logon me dum hai, naheen to itne log yahan kyon rahte (People here have a lot of strength. That’s why so many of them live here despite hardships).
Bihar is primarily an agrarian society. Yet the green revolution bypassed it. How do you propose to revive agriculture in the state?
It’s true that Bihar has not realised its true potential in agriculture, but we are determined to be a part of the second green revolution. We are in constant consultation with the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) to develop seed-villages in the state. This will ensure ample supply of certified seeds to farmers.
Don’t you feel your government has not been able to do enough in the area of land reforms?
This is indeed a very sensitive issue that needs to be addressed in a sensitive manner. Though we have initiated land consolidation and updating of land records, the other aspects of land reforms are unattended primarily because of the sensitivities involved. I am not sure if I will be able to raise people’s consciousness level to a point where land reforms would get wide acceptability. All political parties and social groups, which feel for Bihar, are required to pool in their resources to make land reforms a socially acceptable agenda.
I have heard you emphasising on Bihar pride, a kind of Bihari sub-nationalism that will weaken caste and communal identities. What has been the response?
To a certain extent, Bihari sub-nationalism has toned down the divisive effect of caste behaviour. I want to make Bihari sub-nationalism a melting pot of all identities. I want a “Bihari” identity that will subsume all caste identities. That will be my last battle for Bihar.
You also talk about changing the grammar of Bihar politics? Has the grammar really changed?
I once smugly told my son that I should be teaching him maths. I looked at his textbook in the evening and found to my amazement that the whole syllabus had changed from what I had imagined. I apologised to him for my smugness and told him that I needed to read the textbook first before making an effort to teach him. That is similar to the reality of Bihar politics today. In the past five years, the whole grammar has changed but Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan are still clinging to the old syllabus. They will soon come to the same realisation.
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