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Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is packing his bags to go to Pakistan next month. Two other leaders from Bihar, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, had won Pakistan’s heart when they went there some years ago. While Paswan described the indignities the Indian state had heaped on the Muslims of India, Yadav avoided that tempting route to popularity and was, well, just his entertaining self. He left the Pakistanis enchanted.
With Kumar, it is a different story. High Commissioner of Pakistan Salman Bashir was in Patna recently on a bandobast meeting and he gushed about the tremendous development that Bihar has seen because of the chief minister.
Not all Biharis agree, however. A Member of Parliament (MP) from the coalition partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Uday Singh (Purnea) — incidentally also the brother of Rajya Sabha MP from Janata Dal (United) N K Singh — has gone for the Kumar administration, tearing the government’s claims to shreds. According to a sample survey done by an NGO (non-governmental organisation) Uday runs, the number of poor in the state has gone up by five million since Kumar became the chief minister in 2005.
None of the flagship schemes, like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), has been implemented with any honesty. The sample size of the survey is decent — 210,000 households of a total of 350,000 in his constituency. Singh says only 13 per cent of the households – in a region where over 80 per cent of households are dependent on casual labour for livelihood – have reported getting work under MGNREGS. An overwhelming 50 per cent of the respondents felt the condition of local health centres was quite bad. Only five per cent of the Mahadalit and minority community respondents had ever received any support from the state government schemes. In an energy-deficient state, 39 percent of the respondents in the district said electricity was a greater need than roads and infrastructure.
Kumar realises that “yeh dil mange more”. On August 15, he declared, “I will not ask people to vote for us in the next state Assembly election if we fail to provide electricity to each village in Bihar by 2015.” While Bihar’s daily power requirement is between 2,500 and 3,000 Mw, the state produces merely 100 Mw. The central government supplies 1,100-1,200 Mw of power to the state. Bihar has a deficit of over 1,200 Mw. So, the chief minister may have bitten off more than he can chew.
Last week, he cancelled his “adhikar yatra” to demand special status to Bihar, because at one place, he was attacked with plastic chairs, and at another with stale eggs. This was the handiwork of parateachers who were demanding that they should be treated on a par with the regular teachers. Bihar has recruited more than 200,000 teachers. Some, trained, were paid Rs 6,000 a month while others, untrained, were paid Rs 4,000. Although the salary has been linked with inflation, parateachers are protesting the disparity.
All this is a function of the rising aspirations of Biharis who have tasted some development and want more. Kumar was not unaware of this and tried to temper the speed at which change was sought, by indefatigable tours of the state to reach out and listen to people — striking up a dialogue.
But how quickly can you undo damage to the state structure that spans decades? The June 2012 murder of upper caste Bhumihar icon Barmeshwar Mukhiya, who led the Ranvir Sena, and was an accused in massacres like Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe but was acquitted, has brought back the spectre of the dreaded caste wars in Bihar. His killers are yet to be caught and the Bhumihars are on the war path. So, law and order, the big triumph of the Kumar government, is slipping once again.
Faced with all this, Kumar should be a troubled and distressed man. The only hope is that he continues to treat the BJP as a partner and the Opposition, thereby sealing off the Opposition space to Yadav. Hence, his opposition to Narendra Modi, his instant stinging response to the Thackerays and his continual harking to Bihari pride. Kumar knows the challenges are many, and they cannot be resolved at once. He needs to unite Bihar against returning to the Lalu Raj; not dividing it so that caste rather than religion once again becomes the lexicon of politics.
But the window is small. Yadav gains the ground he has lost with every incident of social unrest, every demonstration by angry people. The only way to beat this back is to thrust development on the people and hope they will use their intellect to decide whom they want to be governed by, not their caste. If the latter happens, everything is over for Bihar.