Perhaps for the first time in his seven years as chief minister, criticism has begun to echo around Nitish Kumar: petty ' but rampant ' corruption, truancy of pledge, tardy implementation of projects, spurred public aspiration caught in bureaucratic claptrap. At several stops during his extensive Adhikar Yatra over the past couple of months, Nitish Kumar came face to face with public indignation, even anger.
Nitish isn't in denial of any of that. But equally, he isn't prepared to be fazed or troubled. "That's only natural," he told The Telegraph in an exclusive interview at his chambers in the Old Patna Secretariat on Friday afternoon. "We have raised the aspirations of people. Bihar is in Dil-Maange-more mood, and that is a good thing. Wanting more is human psyche, don't take it as the final verdict."
The chief minister was preparing for the last meeting of his cabinet before he presents his annual report card to the people on Saturday morning. Just ahead of it, he answered a wide range of questions about achievements and shortfalls, his reasons for confidence and his areas of concern. Excerpts from the conversation:
lTT: You've just returned from a successful trip to Pakistan. What's been your essential takeaway from the experience?
Nitish Kumar: I am still mulling over it, and it is an experience I want to share formally when I have gathered my thoughts. I plan to do it soon and I will do it publicly as I shared my experiences from previous foreign visits, like China. But I would say that there are lots of issues that exist between us that we need to iron out before we can move ahead in any substantive way. As I said repeatedly during my trip to Pakistan, we have a shared history and heritage and they too are aware of this. I found there is a very deep sense there, particularly about us being part of the same Indus Valley civilisation. We have common problems and similar problems and cooperation can benefit the people of both countries. But as I said, I am yet to distil that experience and when I have done that I shall share it.
lThere is a sense emerging, particularly after your visit to Pakistan, that you are expanding your canvas beyond Bihar, aspiring to a larger stature and role. Is that a fair sense?
I have been interested and involved in things and issues beyond Bihar from the very start. I have spent six terms as Lok Sabha MP and was a Union minister before I came to the state in a governance role, so my involvement in larger issues and concerns predates my tenure as chief minister. When I have gone abroad as chief minister, they have been trips related to Bihar. The Pakistan trip, for instance, was about them wanting to share our governance experience. The China trip was undertaken because the government of India wanted to encourage state-to-state ties with Chinese provinces. But my political and governance interests remain totally centred on Bihar, these trips have no political import beyond Bihar in the sense they do not mean I am trying to look at an audience beyond the state. Bihar is where my work and attention and political work is totally focused. But it is true that being from Bihar, one gathers larger attention. That comes from the nature of Bihar because it has been a historic seat of power and of learning and culture. People are interested. So you will find that people who destroyed Bihar gained a name outside and people who are trying to rebuild Bihar are also getting attention. Jisne Bihar ko bigara uska bhi naam hua, jisne Bihar ko banaya uska bhi naam hua. Bihar has a special place, not just in India but all over the world because of its very special past.
lYou are about to complete two years of your second term in power, Chief Minister. How do you look back on these years in terms of what you have achieved and what you haven't been able to?
I look at it as seven years in power, not two, because after my first term I was voted back, so my governance is a continuum. But I do agree that the nature of the two mandates was different. I was given my first term in power because people wanted change, desperately wanted change and they gave themselves that change, they voted us into power. They broke the myth that change would not come. And the work that got done in the first term was, to my mind, a bonus, they were surprised, in a sense, that governments could work. And that was the basis for the second mandate in 2010. The nature of this mandate was different, it was not for change, it was for work, it was for fulfilment of aspirations. They had seen work, the sky was the limit for them.
lHow have you fared? There is a hubbub of criticism on the ground, people have of late begun to complain about things not getting done, about there being too much talk, too little delivery...
That's a natural thing. Expectations are high, very high, because people have seen a government that works after a long time. Before we came to power, people were resigned and cynical, they had no expectations so they did not complain or demand. It's different now.
lDoes this criticism upset you? Do you think you have become the victim of aspirations you yourself have raised?
As I said this is a natural human thing, it does not upset me at all, it only tells me that things are moving on the ground and people want them to move faster. That is only human. Too much has become too little because things are getting done. Bihar is in 'Dil Maange more' mood and that is a good thing. The UK minister for the Department of International Development (DFID) was visiting us recently and she went around the state and she told me that she found two things: that expectations were very high and also that people, having complained, had a sense of what is possible and what is not within a period of time. She also remarked, rightly, that democracies work under limitations, some things move slowly. So I am not worried or upset at all, things are moving. Criticism will be there, and that is natural, but don't take it as any final verdict. We complain, we demand, we criticise because we expect more, that is democracy.
lGround level corruption is a particular complaint...
But who has done more to contain corruption? Tell me a government that has already confiscated five properties raised out of disproportionate funds and converted them into schools? We have done that. Tell me a government that has made the Right to Public Services its central motto? We have. It has only been in operation 15 months but more than two and a half crore people have benefited from it. And the numbers are mounting every day. In a society like ours, there will also be room to complain, you do something to benefit ten people, twenty others will complain, but at least those ten got something, and the rest will get it too in time.
lWhat do you count among the successes of your second term?
The Right to Public Services is a big initiative. Our recent agriculture roadmap, which was inaugurated by President Pranab Mukherjee. I think it is a unique integrated programme that will benefit 76 per cent of the population that still depends on agriculture. It involves everything from production to processing to marketing of all kinds of agri-products. It involves fresh surveying and consolidation of land, it involves connecting villages to roads, it involves movement and storage of produce, it is going to be a huge thing. Something that we have not been able to publicise well is that 90 per cent of our promised programmes are under implementation in only the second year of this term. We are moving, the results will begin to show. Do you know, for instance, that we have established a direct link between girls' education and fertility rates? The national and Bihar average is 3.7 per cent. In girls who study up to Class X, the level drops to 2 per cent, in those who finish schools, it is a mere 1.7 per cent. We are working on this, on educating girls in fast-tracked fashion; boys too, but girls are very important, they are critical to development.
lHave you not taken a very tough and unreasonable sounding vow on power, that you won't ask for votes in 2015 if you can't provide electricity to each home?
Well, it's a promise I have already made and I made it on August 15 so I have to come good on it. I am confident we will be able to generate and distribute our targets by that time. We are working very hard on that one, and again, that effort will show. If I am not able to do that, well I have said I won't go seeking votes, so I won't go seeking votes, simple as that. But wait and watch, we will bring power to every home.
lWhat are your areas of concern?
Work has to be consistent, and there has to be constant follow-through, that is the culture we have created here. My main concern is resources. Despite enhanced tax collection and plan fund shares, there is a crunch ' plans and programmes we want to implement suffer for lack of money. Which is why we are demanding special status so hard for Bihar. We have managed high growth rates despite the overall slowdown but we too will get affected. We have special disadvantages, historic and geographic disadvantages. Himalayan rivers play havoc in Bihar each year and that is for the Centre to sort out, it is an international issue. We suffer year after year. I am not demanding special status for myself or for another term in power or for my political ends, it is a thing for Bihar's future generations. Even for India, it is not a good thing to be dependent on a few developed states, what I call islands of progress. Development has to be distributed, only then will the country be able to resist economic downturns better. Bihar is left to struggle for itself and that is injustice, we must be allowed our role in the larger scheme and that will only happen if we are given the incentives of a special status state.
lBut that demand is not getting anywhere...
That is probably true, but see what good sense it makes. Can this country do well if Bihar continues to do badly? Despite our best efforts, despite the highest growth index in the country, we are needy and that is not a situation of our making. India can only do better and bolder if Bihar and states like Bihar are helped with incentives, islands of prosperity are not good enough.