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Who did better, Nitish or Lalu? Bihar debates as CM completes 15 yrs, ‘mixed bag’ say experts

Roads, electricity, law and order, and a crusade against corruption — Nitish Kumar had a sterling reputation in his early years in power. But many say he has faltered recently.

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Patna: Who did more for Bihar — Nitish Kumar or Lalu Prasad Yadav? The debate played out in the state this week as Nitish completed 15 years as CM, equalling the combined tenures of Yadav and his wife, Rabri Devi, between 1990 and 2005.

Kumar’s party, the Janata Dal (United) and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have hailed him as vikas purush (man of development). However, the opposition has mocked them for celebrating ‘failures’. Independent observers, meanwhile, say it’s a mixed bag.

“The first five years were excellent, things began to slip in the second five, and in the last five years, Nitish Kumar has lost his USP: good governance,” Prof. D.M. Diwakar, former director of the A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, told ThePrint.

The JD(U) held a number of programmes Wednesday to mark the milestone, under the slogan Samdarshi Netritva aur Samaveshi Vikas ke 15 Saal: Bemisaal (15 years of visionary leadership and inclusive growth: Unparalleled).

At a meeting of party office-bearers convened on the occasion, JD(U) president Lalan Singh said, “When there were floods during the Lalu era, he would mock the victims, asking them to catch fish. But now, flood victims call Nitish jiquintal baba because he ensures that each family gets one quintal of foodgrains, making sure they don’t starve. Lalu ji can say anything he wants, but the fact remains that we no longer need hurricane lamps (kerosene lanterns) because Nitish ji has ensured the availability of electricity.”

Party MLC Sanjay Singh said at the meeting, “Remember the humiliation Biharis faced outside the state during Lalu raj? Now, that has been replaced by pride as Bihar marches ahead in development under the leadership of Nitish ji.”

However, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Tejashwi Yadav, leader of the opposition in Bihar, pointed to public policy think-tank NITI Aayog’s annual Sustainable Development Goals index, and asked why Bihar’s overall score was the lowest among all Indian states in this year’s report, released in June. Tejashwi added that Nitish should answer why Bihar remains “the centre of poverty and unemployment”.

Also read: Nitish govt needs to learn from hooch tragedies. Prohibition, punishing officials are no solution

Summing up 15 years

Nitish was sworn in as chief minister on 24 November 2005, after leading the NDA to victory in the assembly elections. It was the second time he was sworn in as CM— he’d had an abortive seven-day tenure in 2000. But since 2005, he has enjoyed an almost unbroken run at the helm of the state. The only interruption was when he resigned in favour of Jitan Ram Manjhi after accepting responsibility for the JD(U)’s poor performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. However, Nitish reclaimed the post in 2015, and remains in office to date.

Politicians are bewildered as to why the JD(U) chose to celebrate this 15-year anniversary at a time when there are no elections in the offing. “Normally, parties list their achievements before elections,” said RJD national vice-president Shivanand Tiwari.

Tiwari speculated that the celebrations may be intended to differentiate the JD(U) from the NDA, into which it is “subsumed” come election time. “In the two recent bypolls, Nitish insisted that the candidates belonged to the NDA and not the JD(U) alone. Recall when the JD(U) took exception to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) using Nitish’s image in its posters in 2010,” he said.

Tiwari has known both Nitish and Lalu for 50 years. Summing up Nitish’s tenure, he said, “The past 15 years have seen infrastructure development, in terms of roads and the availability of power. But the failures have been glaring. Bihar continues to be a colony of richer states where cheap labour is available.”

Also read: Why Nitish, who mocked spurious liquor deaths, is now set to review Bihar’s Prohibition laws

Roads, power and politics

Nitish’s first five years in power saw smooth roads replace non-existent ones, and government hospitals — once largely deserted, and a favourite haunt of dogs — suddenly spring into activity. There was a marked improvement in law and order, with the introduction of speedy trials. 

In 2010, the people rewarded the Nitish-led alliance with 206 of the state assembly’s 243 seats. However, this second term is known more for politics than policy. He did deliver on his promise to improve power availability — the total electricity consumption in peak hours went from around 700 megawatts in 2005 to 5,932 in 2020. 

However, Bihar saw three governments in the years that followed, with Nitish ditching the BJP for an alliance with the RJD in 2013. He won fewer seats in the 2015 assembly elections, but managed to stay in power. However, his alliance with the RJD was creaky from the beginning due to contradictions between his and Lalu’s working styles, and this led to another divorce in 2017. Nitish returned to the BJP fold — but this dealt a blow to his image as a credible ally. The last four years have seen him bogged down by controversies such as the Srijan scam and exam paper leaks.

Setbacks in later years

Nitish has suffered more and more setbacks over the years. He had to walk back his 2008 attempt at land reform when he encountered stiff resistance. He also took a series of steps to control corruption early on, but the numbers of corrupt officials caught in the net has declined — from 83 vigilance cases against officials in 2017 to just 12 in 2020. A 2019 India Corruption Survey ranked Bihar just behind Rajasthan as the second-most corrupt state in the country.   

The law and order situation is also perceived to have grown worse compared to Nitish’s first term, with a number of people and businesses facing attacks

Investment in industry has also been low in the state. The Centre on 3 November said it had cleared 17 ethanol production centres in Bihar, but the total investment is just Rs 3,400 crore. 

Kumar introduced Prohibition in 2016, but has struggled to enforce it. After more than 40 people died in hooch-induced tragedies, BJP MLA Haribhushan Thakur Bachol demanded that Prohibition be withdrawn

“It’s not the same Nitish Kumar as in 2005. His authority has waned. He has to look the other way when it comes to corruption complaints against BJP ministers,” said a JD(U) MLA on the condition of anonymity.

Fifteen years down the line, Patna’s skyline is still changing, as is that of various towns in the state. Roads and bridges continue to be built. But there are hospitals without doctors and newly built schools with no teachers. New engineering and medical institutes have come up, but lack technical staff. 

P.P. Ghose, an economist at the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna, summed up Nitish’s 15 years as CM by calling it a mixed bag.

“The state doesn’t have the funds to make appointments and there’s a huge number of vacancies,” he added.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: After policemen attack Bihar judge in office, furious Patna HC asks DGP to file report


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