Nitish Kumar: India’s Man from Hope?

“The thieves had AK-47s. Our police had old guns from the British colonial days. The thieves had the latest SUVs. Our police vehicles would break down. Five police officers would get out of the car, and push to get it started. Then it would make a big sound as the engine kicked-in. Every criminal nearby could hear it.”

With a sly grin, Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, told me the story of the state’s hard times … and its comeback. Seven years later, over 70,000 criminals are behind bars. India’s most crime ridden, corrupt, and economically failing state is now one of the best governed and perhaps the most effective in fighting corruption.[1]

Bihar’s economic performance during Nitish Kumar’s term has also been spectacular— just a fraction behind Gujarat. His agenda of “growth with justice” has made him the second most admired chief minister in India, ranking right behind Narendra Modi of Gujarat, in a recent India Today survey.

Don’t be surprised if Nitish (as he is generally called), and not Modi, ends up becoming prime minister of India someday. Nitish and Modi’s parties both belong to the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA). While the NDA has been led by Modi’s party (the BJP), Modi’s opponents are so numerous and strong that he may not be a viable Prime Minister.

Nitish, by comparison, has few detractors— other than the 70,000 criminals he helped to convict. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (the man he could replace) has praised the “…Nitish government in many areas, including administrative reforms.” Though Nitish’s JDU party is mostly limited to his home state of Bihar, its agenda cuts across caste and religion.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. elected a president from a small, landlocked farm state with high illiteracy, poverty, and a history of corrupt government. He combined a progressive agenda that appealed across race and class. But he was able and willing to work with conservatives in fighting crime, promoting fiscal discipline, and individual responsibility.

If Bihar’s chief minister ends up becoming prime minister, it will have been for two reasons: his accomplishments in a key rural state; and his ability to master the dynamics of India’s coalition, religion and caste-politics.

Nitish’s accomplishments: Bihar’s miracle. When Nitish took over, many had written-off Bihar as a failed state whose most prominent industry was kidnapping, and whose biggest export was people. Gangsters sought ransom from anyone with any wealth or education. Doctors and teachers flooded out of the state. So too did young men, in search of jobs in Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu. Bihar’s greatest revenues were their remittances. Elsewhere in India, politicians would run nativist campaigns against Bihari immigrants.

Before Nitish, Bihari officials used the state’s power to secure wealth for themselves— including allowing local “protection” and kidnapping rackets. The British journalist Ed Luce vividly described this in his terrific book In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India. “Lower-caste politicians do not unite the lower orders by stressing what they have in common. Instead, they slice them up by focusing on what divides them. It is much closer to ethnic politics than to class politics.”

Nitish’s predecessor— and his one-time mentor— Lalu Prasad Yadav, had mastered the art of caste-based politics. Worse than in almost any other state, Lalu tacitly allowed local criminals to run small, well-armed fiefdoms.

Even keen observers, such as Luce, did not expect much of Nitish. Nitish was a former Lalu deputy who came from a different lower caste, and several candidates in his Janata Dal United (JDU) party had criminal backgrounds. “Even in defeat, Lalu’s logic lived on,” wrote Ed Luce. “I have little doubt that he will be back.”

Luce was not alone in underestimating Nitish’s combination of courage and fairness. Nitish overhauled his police force— recruiting younger officers, upgrading its equipment, and even pulling in the army reserve for a time. But what was most important— and difficult— was applying the law equally across caste and political lines. “The key,” Nitish told me, “was willpower and determination to be fair.”

Nitish worked with police and prosecutors to emphasize not just arrests, but open and expeditious trials. They convinced witnesses to testify, personally vouching for their safety. “What was important was to send a signal that [their] government was competent.” Bihar’s trial and conviction rates went from being among the worst in India, to right near the top.

Nitish demanded that all civil servants declare their assets each year, then posted those disclosures on the state’s website. “Though most people in Bihar are honest and law-abiding, lawbreaking is part of human nature. What government can do best is to expose it and prosecute it. If government is not fair and law-abiding, then it is hard to expect the same of society.”

He then focused on the economy. In his first five years— from 2005-2009— the state grew on average at 11%. The state reported 14% growth in 2010-2011.

Bihar was starting from a low base. Per capita income was below $300/year. It has almost doubled in seven years, but is still under $500/year— less than a third that of Gujarat. “But we have fertile land and hard working people. Bihar’s greatest asset is its people.”

Bihar certainly has a lot of people. In a territory smaller than Arkansas, Bihar has thirty times the population. In other words, Bihar squeezes 100 million people— as many as all of rural America— into a state that is only about 250 miles across its mid-section. And though it is densely populated, it is dramatically rural. Nine out of ten Biharis live in the countryside; its biggest city, Patna, has only 5 million people.

Just as a certain former governor of Arkansas ran a campaign on “It’s the economy, stupid,” Nitish’s campaign had a results-oriented message. “I went to the villages and told people: if you don’t see tangible changes, then tell me and I won’t run again.”

Nitish prioritized roads, which were essential to generating enough livelihoods to keep people at home. “India says Bihar has 40,000 villages. But if you count all the settlements, it is more like 200,000. But people felt cut off.” His goal was to get them all paved, and to connect them with broadband wireless.

Better roads also made it easier for kids to get to school— which Nitish says is his passion. He provided free mid-day meals, uniforms and bicycles to increase attendance. Perhaps more importantly, he hired 150,000 new teachers. That’s 50% more than next door in Uttar Pradesh, a state with twice as many people. Illiteracy approached 30% of the general population, and 70% among women.  He placed special emphasis on girls’ education, cutting female illiteracy to 40%. That included not just teaching “the girl child,” but also targeting adult women illiteracy.

And, again, his effort to include women in local education and self-government schemes was also done for all of Bihar, without regard to caste or religion. “Women voted irrespective of caste for Nitish Kumar in 2009,” explained Amitabh Srivastava, a Bihar-based reporter for India Today. “Nitish created a caste-neutral constituency of women. That was his social and political breakthrough.”

Ironically, the focus on women has helped bring migrant men back home. As investment and construction have come to Patna, the Bihar Institute of Economic Studies estimates that migration is down 25%-30%, causing shortages and wage increases on construction worksites as far afield as Mumbai and Chennai, as reported in The Economic Times. Food processing, light manufacturing, and even tourism (Bihar is the global birthplace of Buddhism), have brought many value-added businesses to the state.

Though Bihar is landlocked, Nitish also became comfortable with thinking internationally. He rattled off for me the list of international agencies that he works with in Bihar— the World Bank on job creation, the Asian Development Bank and Japanese foreign aid agency on roads, the UNDP and UNICEF on health, education, and children’s issues, and the UK’s development agency on governance. Bill and Melinda Gates recently traveled to Bihar to praise Nitish and his team’s model for development, especially on public health issues.

So it is no surprise that Nitish is extremely popular in Bihar. In 2010, in a four-party race, his party ran in coalition with the nationalist BJP. Together the two parties won a commanding 80% of the state assembly— with Nitish’s party getting the lion’s share.

Local Parties, All-India, and National Coalitions. Nitish’s local success is the rising trend in India. Four of India’s most important states are now governed by local parties. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu together have a population just short of 500 million. Like Nitish’s, these local parties increasingly appeal across caste and religion to “All-India.” That’s what happened next door to Bihar in Uttar Pradesh earlier this month, when Akhilesh Yadav led the Socialist Party to a commanding victory in state elections.

When it comes to national politics, the local parties also are increasingly important. Neither of the national parties is strong enough alone to form a majority. The Congress Party controls 38%, and the BJP controls only about 20% of the 543 seats in Parliament.

Few analysts expect either party’s support to grow large enough in the near term to win a majority in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The Congress Party badly lost state elections in Uttar Pradesh earlier this month. It was a personal rebuke for Rahul Gandhi, who campaigned hard and— to his credit— took responsibility for the defeat. The party also does have many strong chief ministers, but none have the national name recognition to galvanize the party.

The BJP did slightly better in UP, but across India the party still largely appeals to upper caste Hindus and urban dwellers. The BJP has yet to settle on a leader. Modi is certainly the most popular candidate. But because of the 2002 riots, many analysts suspect that he would drive away secular, Muslim and lower-caste voters. And that is assuming he is eventually cleared by the courts for his involvement in the riots.

As a result, local parties are likely to remain king-makers for some time, needed by the Congress Party or the BJP to form a governing coalition.

Currently, Mamata Banerjee’s Trianmool Congress in West Bengal has made a fragile alliance with the Congress Party to help form the country’s governing coalition. Nitish’s JDU sides with the BJP in the opposition. Akhilesh’s Socialists in Uttar Pradesh and Jayalalitha’s AIADMK in Tamil Nadu remain neutral.

Parties such as Nitish’s JDU or Akilesh Yadev’s Socialists or Jayalalitha’s AIADMK that depend on Muslim support are less willing to let the BJP lead a national coalition. That would particularly be the case if Modi is at the head of the coalition, even if they might be willing to share power with the party. Instead, they might look for a new hybrid— an All-Indian local politician from a local party to head the NDA.

It is precisely in his caste-neutral, religion-neutral appeal that could make Nitish that candidate someday. He would have to bring together not just more conservative NDA members, but also some of these other big-state local parties which have a more inclusive and development oriented appeal. Some have even speculated that these parties could form a new coalition that presents an “All-India” mosaic made up of many local colors.

Could Nitish Kumar be India’s man from Hope? He is certainly a political leader worth watching.

William Antholis is managing director of the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow in Governance Studies. The views in this piece are his own, and do not reflect the views of the Brookings Institution.

[1] See especially Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari, Corruption in India: The DNA and the RNA (New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 2012), Ch. 6, section 4: “The States Lead the Way”.  Bihar edged out Gujarat as the state that most effectively raises corruption cases, sees them to trial, and successfully convicts.