Nitish Kumar: Socialist at heart and politician of few words

By Imran Khan, IANS,

Patna: He graduated as an engineer but plunged into Bihar’s politics instead. That was in the early 1970s when he was still a student. Three decades later, Nitish Kumar, who gets five more years to rule Bihar, has proved to be the magic wand the state has been seeking for decades.

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With a personal commitment to good governance and socialist principles, the soft-spoken Nitish Kumar, 59, has led his Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to a sweeping election victory in one of India’s most populous and politically key states.

For one who for years seemed to work under the shadow of the more vocal and more charismatic Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar could emerge as a leader in his own right only after be broke away to chart an independent course.

Despite the many ups and downs in Bihar and national politics, Nitish Kumar always retained a certain something that marked him out from an entire tribe of contemporaries who now dominate the state politics.

But Nitish Kumar’s first brush with power in Patna was disastrous.

He became chief minister for the first time March 3, 2000. But he had to resign within a week after failing to prove his majority.

Five years later, he was back in the saddle, thanks to an alliance with the BJP, a party he has courted since 1996 but whose Hindutva politics he strongly rejects.

Once he became chief minister, Nitish Kumar, the man of few words, went about building a Bihar that had universally come to be identified with bad politics, poor governance and low quality life.

Without noise and bluster, he relaid roads that had virtually ceased to exist, completed long-delayed infrastructure projects, appointed one lakh school teachers to rebuild the shattered educational system, and ensured that doctors attended health centres and gave away medicines.

Most important, he cracked down on criminals and gangsters with strong links to politics. He ordered speedy trials. Over 54,000 criminals, many of them politicians, were convicted.

In no time, Bihar’s notorious crime rate dropped, so much so that young women began to venture out at night in cities like Patna.

But what won Nitish Kumar the dizzying popularity was his pathbreaking decision to give away bicycles to girls so that they could travel to their educational institutions without any hassle.

“Nitish Kumar tried to change the face of Bihar and he succeeded to some extent,” said businessman Santosh Kumar Singh.

Like Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar was a product of Bihar’s student movement of the 1970s. He still considers himself a socialist at heart.

A teetotaller who detests tobacco, the widower has a son. But unlike Lalu Prasad, he keeps away his family from the limelight.

He never hesitated to express his faith in secular beliefs despite courting the BJP. When the crunch came, he ensured that Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, would not campaign in Bihar.

Born 1951, Nitish Kumar was elected to the Bihar assembly in 1985 for the first time. He became president of the Yuva Lok Dal in 1987, and secretary general of the then undivided Janata Dal two years later.

He got elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1989, and went on to win five parliamentary elections from Bihar.

He became a minister of state in the central government when V.P. Singh was prime minister.

He became railway minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government but resigned when a train disaster killed about 250 people. He returned to the cabinet as minister for surface transport and agriculture.

But all through his innings in Delhi, he never lost sight of his ultimate goal: govern Bihar.

(Imran Khan can be contacted at [email protected])