“PM Ara se aise bol rahe they jaise Bihar ki boli lagaa rahe hon… (The PM was speaking in Ara as though he was bidding for Bihar).”
This was Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on August 18, hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a Rs 1.25 lakh crore development package for the state. The statement, a combative riposte in a high-stakes battle, also underscored the frustration of Nitish Kumar, whose main electoral plank — good governance or development — faces a serious threat from the Prime Minister himself.
While the Chief Minister chose to pick holes in the technical details of the announcement, his dilemma is that he cannot be seen to either reject, or even criticise beyond a point, the Prime Minister’s extraordinary largesse for the state. And he cannot, of course, feel happy about it and say thank you to Modi either.
Nitish has often said that Biharis, having tasted the development that he had brought, become very demanding. “I had offered them bread, but now they want it with butter,” he would say, claiming credit for the vikas that the state has seen in the post Lalu-Rabri “jungle raj” years.
But it is PM Modi who has now offered Bihar both the main course as well as dessert.
Nitish’s self-image as Development Man took a beating soon after the NDA split in June 2013. When Modi addressed his first rally in Bihar in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan that October, he chose to harp on the development theme alone. Modi spoke of a Rs 50,000 crore special package to counter Nitish’s persistent demand for special category status. He was playing to his strength, and taking Nitish on at his own game.
For a long time, Nitish has basked in the glory of Bihar’s turnaround story, its growth rate at one time beating that of Gujarat. He has had no challenger who can confront his development model, let alone offer a better one. Lalu Prasad has been a weak competitor, and Nitish has shone in comparison to the Lalu-Rabri misrule.
Nitish looked good because he developed on a low base. He impressed Biharis by giving them basics that were denied so far. He picked the low-hanging fruit, giving the people good roads and new schools with teachers, and revived the moribund government hospitals. Pictures of girls cycling to school on proper roads made for excellent optics, and Nitish would often point out to the then Chief Minister of Gujarat that there was a big difference between developing a state that was already developed, and developing an underdeveloped state.
But that Chief Minister is now Prime Minister. Nitish may say that he needs only policy support, not money, but he must know that for Bihar to move into level 2 growth, it needs a lot of funds.
Nitish retains the reputation of a doer. He has been tried, tested and proven. There is hardly a voter who would give him the thumbs-down on development. For many, he remains the best man to rule Bihar.
But he is also seen as keeping the “wrong” company. Being powerfully anti-Lalu was his strength. To voters who recognised that, Nitish being in the same corner as Lalu today is a weakness. A frequently heard refrain on the campaign trail is, “Nitish is good, but why did he have to go with Lalu?” The RJD chief has become a neutralising and weakening agent for Nitish’s development plank.
This is where Modi comes in. He talks of packages and jungle raj in the same sentence. He has been selling a bigger dream for Bihar’s development — one that includes mega rail and road bridges, a gas pipeline, central universities, skill development, and an agriculture revolution. He has been telling voters he wants eastern India to come on a par with states of the west. The audience at his rallies have seemed impressed, and even Lalu has conceded that the PM is a “hypnotizer”.
What then is the catch? Simply that while Nitish has already delivered, the benefits from Modi’s model are yet to be visible. And sceptics might just choose the model they have tested and found to work.
It is possibly to ensure that Nitish’s “progressive” model is not weighed down by the “retrogressive” alliance with Lalu that the Chief Minister’s publicity manager Prashant Kishor has decided to go with a solo campaign focussed on development. Nitish has not been keen to share the dais with Lalu, but the two leaders will address a joint rally in Patna on August 30.
The Bihar BJP has been claiming credit for Bihar’s development during the seven-and-a-half years it was with the JD(U). Nitish has been trying to signal that Lalu would not have a say in governance beyond a point. For voters who are disappointed with the Nitish-Lalu alliance and have bought Modi’s pitch, it would have been ideal if the BJP and JD(U) got back together.
My development vs your development will go down to the wire. A fascinating battle is unfolding in a state that has been long defined by the politics of caste, but where vikas now has a lot of subscribers.