The general election year of 2014 was not a good time to be Nitish Kumar. After he broke his alliance with the BJP, the former partner swept up seats in his home state of Bihar. Nitish’s great rival Lalu Yadav, who did a little better in the same election, relished the schadenfreude. When I visited him at his Patna home in March 2014 during the campaign, Lalu had crowed: “To throw me out of power, they made a love marriage, and now that marriage is divorce! He is very disturbed and perturbed. Mr Nitish Kumar is a very proud and arrogant man.”
Narendra Modi rubbed salt in the wound, saying one year later that “there was some problem with Nitish Kumar’s DNA.” Nitish answered angrily that the prime minister was insulting ‘Bihari Asmita’. Then, this crafty long-time player of power politics in the state confounded all expectations by making an unexpected alliance with his opponent Lalu for the 2015 assembly elections, and used his strategic knowledge of Bihar’s social and caste equations to trounce the BJP and return triumphantly to power. A week ago, Nitish took over as the national president of the JD(U), setting himself up as a potential prime ministerial candidate for the 2019 general election. “One day I’ll become PM,” he used to say to his batchmates at the Bihar College of Engineering in the early 1970s, and they laughed. But it is far from impossible.
Today, the 65-year-old Nitish Kumar looks utterly at home in the chief minister’s residence in Patna, as if he could not imagine being anywhere else. His capacious face is dusted with grey stubble, his hair layered in a wave across the head. He wears a perfectly tailored white linen kurta pajama; rather than cuffs, it has sleeves that are slightly too long and fold back crisply. On his left wrist, a watch faces inwards; on the little finger of his right hand is a silver ring. Nitish enjoys the accoutrements of office: the tall doors of polished wood, the liveried servants, the Bodhi tree that he planted in the garden and invited the Dalai Lama to inaugurate, which builders are now surrounding with a carved marble balustrade.
For forty years, he has avoided personal attachments and rumours of corruption; he is a widower, and his only child Nishant is not involved in politics. In a biography, Single Man, Sankarshan Thakur describes how at the age of 16 when Nitish came from the roadside town of Bakhtiyarpur to the science college in Patna, he warded off cockroaches in his cupboard with naphthalene balls and gave bars of soap to the hostel cooks.
What was Bakhtiyarpur like, I ask? “An average small place.” Can he describe his childhood in the 1950s? “Our home was on a road which is now a national highway. Bakhtiyarpur was a place for villages from round about to use as a local market. It is on the banks of the Ganga, so people would come and bathe on auspicious days. My father was an ayurvedic practitioner. He would tell us stories of the freedom movement when I came home from school. We used kerosene lamps. In my childhood days, I didn’t know Bakhtiyar Khilji had gone from there [in around the year 1200] to destroy Nalanda University! In the winter season, after exams, I would go with my mother to my father’s ancestral village, 7km away. She would monitor cultivation and take accounts of the crops and animals.”
Now you live in this style, I say, gesturing at the expanse of his office. Nitish bursts out laughing. “This is the Chief Minister’s house and residence! It’s usual that it’s like this.” But not every CM of Bihar lives in the same way, I suggest. “The whole image of Bihar has changed. People did not expect anything of Bihar in earlier days. The basic responsibility of any state government under our Constitution is to protect law and order. Then comes infrastructure.” The improvement during his tenure as chief minister from 2005-2014 was noticeable: driving from Patna to Benares, for example, the quality of the roads declines visibly when you cross into UP. It is a far cry from the days of Lalu’s rule, when in the words of one old Patna resident, “Kidnapping was an industry. If you had a vehicle, people would say don’t go by road, go by train.”
Nitish speaks admiringly of the Maurya period and Patliputra, of Mahavir and Guru Gobind Singh, and of the Champaran movement. “Everybody connects to some extent with Bihar in ancient times, and the laws on law and order, on governance that came from here. I’m not a religious follower, but I’m greatly attracted to Lord Buddha, who got enlightenment here. We’re proud of our history. If a person doesn’t know about history, he can’t be understanding now – the present.”
Nearly all of the leaders in Bihar today – Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav, Sushil Modi, Ram Vilas Paswan – emerged out of the JP movement. At the time, Nitish was a minor student politician who was known less for his fiery speeches than as a backroom operator. Jayaprakash Narayan called a Bihar Bandh in 1974, and the young leader was arrested under MISA. Socialists and Lohiaites found themselves banged up with members of the RSS. What did he do wrong, I ask, and again Nitish begins to laugh. “I had organised a class boycott! I was arrested in early September 1974 and taken to Gaya central gaol, which is the hottest place in Bihar. Few people were there who weren’t political prisoners. It was a very tough jail. Then I went to Patna central gaol in the first week of December. They released all of us before the Emergency and arrested me again after the Emergency. After that, I was imprisoned in Buxar central gaol.”