November 24, 2010


[Mr. Kumar’s campaign in the state of Bihar was watched across India as a litmus test of the lingering strength of the divisive caste politics that have held sway in much of northern India for more than two decades. Mr. Kumar hardly ignored caste, but unlike other rivals, he did not make caste allegiance a defining issue. Instead, he ran on his record of cleaning up crime in Bihar and promoting education and development.]

Bihar once had been maligned, a state moving backward, even as India pushed forward. But that had now changed, he declared to loud cheers. Bihar, too, was moving ahead.
“Nitish Kumar!” the farmers shouted to the bespectacled, pot-bellied chief minister of the state. “Man of Development! Man of Development!”
Indeed, Mr. Kumar’s success in turning his state around since taking power in 2005 has made him something of a national celebrity and raised a pressing question for all of Indian politics: Will voters leave behind more than two decades of politics built around caste identity and reward good governance?
In what many analysts say is a hopeful sign, it looks as if they might. Exit polls from six weeks of voting for a new state legislature in Bihar suggest that Mr. Kumar and his development agenda may be headed for a big victory when results are finally announced Wednesday.
“Distributional politics have been set aside for performance politics,” said Jayant Sinha, a strategist for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is allied with Mr. Kumar in the Bihar elections. “The communities have tried this game of voting into government their caste-based candidates and their brothers for a share of the pie. But people have realized that doesn’t work as well as the grow-the-pie approach.”
For decades, regional politicians have risen to power in Bihar and other northern states by appealing to allegiances along Hindu caste lines. Potent voting blocs were organized out of lower-caste voters, for whom placing one of their own in power represented a civil rights victory.
Mr. Kumar, who himself comes from a lower Hindu caste, has hardly ignored the reality of caste politics — his critics say he, too, has exploited caste — but he has framed a more broad-based appeal to voters focused on the shared benefits of development.
This year’s election matched him against the earthy populist, Lalu Prasad Yadav; he and his wife dominated the state as chief ministers before Mr. Kumar took power in 2005. The Yadavs once commanded one of Bihar’s largest caste-dominated political machines, and many analysts have blamed them for wrecking Bihar by treating the state as spoils to be distributed to their followers.
Mr. Yadav is trying to reclaim power by resurrecting his old coalition, which once included support from Muslim voters. But having supported him in the past, many voters seem to be moving away. “Last time, I voted for Lalu,” said Shyam Dev Kumar, a farmer who was impressed by the progress made during the past five years under Nitish Kumar. “This time, I’ll see.”
Voting ended Saturday for the 243 seats in the state legislature, with numerous major and minor parties competing. Exit polls suggest that the National Democratic Alliance coalition led by Mr. Kumar may approach 200 seats, in what would be a rout of his opponents and a defeat of old-style Indian politics.
Shaibal Gupta, director of the Asian Development Research Institute in Bihar, said that what voters had gradually learned was that merely taking over the state apparatus by mobilizing long-marginalized lower castes and Muslims was not enough to lift people out of poverty. The state needs to operate properly, he said.
“The civil rights movement succeeded but it did not ensure change in the economic power structure,” said Mr. Gupta, whose institute has advised the government on policy issues.
Mr. Kumar’s approach to caste politics partly derives from the fact that his Kurmi caste is fairly small, making his political fate contingent on building a broad base of support. He did that by restarting construction of roads and bridges in a state where it had largely ceased, by jailing criminals who had operated with impunity, and by restoring government services that had begun to disintegrate.
He also has made several gestures to Muslim voters (who are wary of his coalition partner, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party), including reopening investigations that later produced convictions in cases of hate killings against Muslims. He also provided new scholarships to high-achieving Muslim students and gave Muslims high positions in government.
Mr. Kumar brought more women into politics by expanding the number of seats reserved for women on village councils, known as panchayats. And he created an entirely new designation — E.B.C., or extremely backward castes — for the lowest-caste Dalits, known as untouchables, which made them eligible for certain job quotas and entitlements.
His critics say these moves prove that Mr. Kumar is playing caste politics, too, by creating his own voting blocs. His allies are more sympathetic.
“This is a process of democratizing the society,” said Shivanand Tiwari, a member of Mr. Kumar’s Janata Dal United Party. “This is a kind of political empowerment.” He added: “This whole election is about Nitish Kumar. Either you are for him or against him.”
Mr. Kumar’s critics blame him for expanding the number of government liquor shops to raise revenues and also point to corruption among some members of his government. Even those who credit him for hiring teachers say the quality of education remains woefully bad. And despite progress, Bihar remains desperately poor and desperate for investment.
Yet many analysts believe that Mr. Kumar is part of a broader trend in which voters are rewarding a new generation of chief ministers who perform well in office. Even India’s most famous caste-based politician, Kumari Mayawati, the chief minister in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, seems to be shifting away from her raw appeals to fellow Dalits by emphasizing development and courting other groups.
One potential beneficiary of this trend is the country’s governing Indian National Congress Party, which became an afterthought in states like Bihar after caste issues fragmented the political hierarchy.
Rahul Gandhi, the youthful scion of the Congress Party, has made it a personal mission to rebuild the Congress Party in Bihar, partly with an eye toward the 2014 national elections. But if exit polls are to be believed, Mr. Kumar is the likely big winner.
At the end of his rally in Sherghati, Mr. Kumar cited his rival Mr. Yadav, noting that he was known for his joking, entertaining political style, almost that of a jester.
“So I appeal to you: Give him bells for his shoes so you can see him dance,” Mr. Kumar said. “But give me votes, and I will run the state.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.