Although caste loyalty and social empowerment have played their roles in propelling his grand alliance, to victory, Kumar will always be known as the reformer chief minister, who brought governance back to Bihar. He did this by reasserting the primacy of the state and eliminating parallel centres of power and authority, such as extortionists and private armies. He might not have been completely successful — it took years before an alleged mafia leader like Anant Singh was put behind the bars — but people still remember that he tried. He did old-fashioned things that chief ministers are supposed to do — like building roads, providing schools and enabling power to reach villages.
He melded politics and governance to best advantage, by creating caste coalitions and a governance platform that would support these coalitions. The extreme backward classes did not grudge him a bureaucracy dominated by the upper caste because he made it work in their interest. The upper castes did not particularly like him but were unable to deny his contribution in governance. Besides, it was the Nitish Kumar administration that asked for a report on land reforms and then put it away in cold storage, for fear of stoking a social conflict of a serious nature.
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While Lalu Prasad never let go an opportunity to socially polarise, using acrimony to consolidate his social base, Kumar carefully crafted a rainbow social coalition of some upper castes, most backward castes and Mahadalits, and successfully diluting the Lalu Prasad effect.
Among others, it was some original and effective governance interventions that led to Kumar’s re-election. His moves to empower women (he was deeply influenced by his own mother, who was socially progressive and played a major role in encouraging him in politics) by reserving 50 per cent seats in panchayats for them, creating a new leadership in the state, of a kind it had never seen. In the run-up to the elections, women were assertive when they said they would not necessarily vote for the party their husbands were voting for. Kumar promised, in response to the complaints of women, that alcoholism would be addressed.
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The initiatives taken in education yielded rich dividends. Bihar government currently spends 24 per cent of its budget on education, higher than any other state government. The Nitish Kumar administration began by first providing free bicycles for girls, extended this to all children, then created a massive infrastructure of building and toilets in schools, and gave extra incentives to children from minority communities who wanted to study. Today, if you are a schoolgoing child in Bihar, the state takes care of almost all your everyday needs — two sets of uniforms, at least one full meal, school books, and a cycle to take you to school and back. The question, then, arises: What do you do once you finish school? The answer — you can become a para-teacher. The Bihar government’s massive recruitment drive for school teachers did not ask for fancy qualifications. If you graduated from a school, you could go back there (with the approval of the panchayat) to teach. True, some teachers were hopelessly unqualified. To correct that, the government tried to set up teacher training institutions in each district.
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Kumar’s moves to control crime initially met with astounding success. He created an auxiliary force of ex-servicemen that acted without fear or favour, boosting police morale. The Arms Act was used to put away criminals and fast-track courts worked overtime. Forces that wanted the status quo resented this but the law prevailed. The somewhat still-born reforms were in the health and power sectors. Although Kumar outsourced diagnostic services, this was not rolled out efficiently. He started the second phase of health sector reforms by augmenting physical infrastructure in hospitals but this was only half done.
Kumar has a huge administrative agenda before him. It remains to be seen how quickly he can roll this out.