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How Nitish turned the tide in his favour

November 26, 2010 01:36 IST

In 2009, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar suffered a huge setback. Until then, he hadn't lost a single by-election since he had come to power in 2005.

In 2009, his party lost 13 of the 18 by-elections and everyone thought disenchantment had set in. Arch rival and RJD chief Lalu Prasad entered the central hall of Parliament and told Congress President Sonia Gandhi proudly -- if a little slyly -- 'Madam, we have won all the seats we contested.'

At a press conference a few weeks later, media persons noticed that Nitish Kumar had begun wearing a ring on his little finger. He wore no jewellery before this and it was the first indication that he had been rattled enough to seek astrological advice.

But now, he has no need for lucky stones or astrology. With the kind of majority he has in the state assembly, aide Shivanand Tiwari was heard telling reporters: "In Bihar, we don't count JD(U) votes any more. We weigh them."

To be sure, the current victory of the JD-U-BJP in Bihar has everything to do with the performance of the Kumar administration. But it also has to do with his personal management of problems both bureaucratic and political.

When he came to power in 2005, the morale of the police was at rock bottom. Few states in India have seen the home secretary -- in Bihar's case, Afzal Amanullah -- play such a central role in restoring police morale.

But he got little time to savour his victory. The Kosi floods in 2008 devastated Bihar.

Roads -- he considers this one of his most important achievement -- were washed away, alluvial soil was blanketed in sand and hundreds of thousands of families were marooned. People lived in camps for months, frequently in unsanitary conditions.

Loud complaints led people to believe that the Kosi region -- which was covered in the first phase of the assembly elections -- would vote Nitish Kumar out. Lalu Prasad spent most of his campaign time in this region, believing it would contribute to the largest number of seats in his kitty.

Surprise! The JD(U)-BJP combine swept the Kosi region, and one of the most unpopular ministers in the government, Bijender Yadav, has returned a winner.

Kumar managed to turn popular opinion in his favour by doing just two things: ensuring he took over the work of ministers -- like Bijendra Yadav -- whose charge had befallen some disaster and posting trusted bureaucrats in the ministry.

Young Pratyay Amrit, the minister's point-man on roads, and Afzal Amanullah were once again pressed into disaster management service.

This third big challenge in the last five years was managing friends who had turned foes.

Kumar referred to this wryly at his first press conference, when someone asked how he was going to manage rebels in his own party. "What can I do? My experience has been that those for whom I do so much, turn around and slap me in the face," he said.

Rajiv Ranjan Singh 'Lallan' was one of them. Considered one of the most important strategists in the earlier phase of Kumar's chief ministership, he fell out of favour when it was discovered that not all the party funds he was collecting were reaching the party.

Kumar axed him, but he went down kicking and screaming.

Nitish Kumar now has a circle of admirers in the bureaucracy -- which is helpful, but can lead to a culture of courtiers. In this term, he says he will set down an administrative infrastructure that will outlaw corruption and continue infrastructure building. His bureaucrats say by 2015, Bihar will have roads that will parallel Gujarat's. With roads will come investment.

Kumar is on a roll. He doesn't know where he will end up, but he is certain of one thing: he will not take the advice of well-wishers who say he should go to Delhi for India's top job. This chief minister isn't interested.
Satyavrat Mishra