In 10 charts: What Nitish Kumar’s 17-year ‘power play’ meant for Bihar

(This story originally appeared in on Aug 12, 2022)

Nitish Kumar took oath as the chief minister of Bihar for the eighth time this week. In the last three decades, the JD(U) stalwart has charted his own brand of “politics of survival” which has helped him stay in power for nearly 17 years now.

Be it an NDA government with BJP or a Mahagathbandhan sarkar with RJD and Congress, JD(U)’s loyalties may have switched several times but the only thing that has remained constant is “chief minister Nitish Kumar”.

But has Nitish also done justice to the post he has fought so hard to retain? Is the Bihar of 2022 better than the Bihar left behind by Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi in 2005?
Here’s a look at some crucial indicators to see how the state has performed under Nitish …

Sushasan babu?

Nitish Kumar has often been described by his supporters as “sushasan (good governance) babu”.

Over the years, one of his major poll planks against the RJD has involved talk of providing good governance and a crime-free state. But did he really end the infamous “jungle raj” era in Bihar?

Nitish Kumar has a mixed record when it comes to handling law and order in the state.

As the data shows, both violent crimes as well as abductions have risen starkly under Nitish, compared to the Lalu years.

While murder cases have come down compared to the pre-Nitish rule, the overall figures remain grim. The murder rate has in fact risen again after dipping below 3,000 cases a year.

Nitish has defended the growth in numbers, saying that it is due to a rise in reporting and registering of such cases. But with no fall in crime statistics, the opposition continues to hit him with the “jungle raj” barb.

While people in Bihar have long hoped for a fall in the state’s crime graph, they also aspire for a significant rise in their personal income. On this front too, Nitish has not done much better than those who came before him.

Though Nitish has claimed double-digit growth in Bihar, the per capita income of the state has remained quite poor.

The latest available data shows that Bihar’s per capita income was barely 33% of the national average in 2017-19. In simpler words, if an average Indian makes Rs 10 a day, a resident of Bihar makes just Rs 3.

An economy survey report, tabled recently by the state, estimates the per capita income at Rs 50,555 in 2020-21, the lowest in the country.

Social impact

Since coming to power, Nitish has taken many pro-women decisions — from imposing prohibition in the state to launching his flagship “bicycles to girls” scheme. But did the state do enough to educate them too?

Bihar’s education budget has fluctuated a lot in the last few years. However, it has remained high as a percentage of the total budget spending.

For several years, Bihar’s allocation for education has remained higher than the national average in terms of budget proportion. Though the actual amount may be lower, it shows that the state prioritises spending on schools & colleges.

But despite the allocation, the state is still considered educationally backward with the Niti Aayog’s education index placing it consistently second from the bottom. This means that the government has a lot to do in terms of spending money in the right direction.

Being a poor state, Bihar has always been pegged against the rest of the country vis-a-vis various social indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality, healthcare, etc.

Data shows that the state has fared well across all these parameters, but continues to trail the national average.

The state managed to bring down its infant mortality rate to the national average of 32 in 2018.

IMR fell from 75 to 61 during Lalu and Rabri’s tenure as CMs but it fell more steeply (from 61 to 31) under Nitish.

Life expectancy in the state has continued to improve under Nitish. At 69.1 years during the period of 2014-18, it is very close to the national average of 69.7.

In fact, the state has largely followed the national trend in the improvement of life expectancy ever since the RJD rule.

Economic impact

Bihar’s GDP has seen a steady rise under Nitish, growing from Rs 77,000 crore in 2004-05 to Rs 6.1 lakh crore in 2020-21.

Between 2011 and 2020, the GDP of the state grew substantially at an increasing annual rate that reached a maximum of 14.25% in 2012 and then decreased to 4.14% in 2020.

Among the states, Bihar currently stands at 14th in terms of GDP.

The state GDP saw its slowest growth during the twin rules of Lalu and his wife Rabri spanning 15 years from 1990. During the Lalu-Rabri years, state GDP rose 3 times. In Nitish years, it increased by over 6 times.

While Bihar has maintained a healthy GDP growth, its public debt has also risen steadily in the last few years.

Last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) flagged the state’s growing debt, which has put a strain on the state’s finances.

According to the report, the growth rate of the outstanding public debt was in the range of 17.69% in 2015-16, 18.99% in 2016-17, 13.02% in 2017-18, 7.75% in 2018-19 and 14.48% in 2019-20, the report added.

As per the budget estimates, the debt is likely to rise to Rs 2.46 lakh crore in 2022.

While the liabilities as a percentage of GSDP have come down from a worrying 55% in 2005 when Nitish took over, the state is still averaging at well over 33%, which is not a good fiscal indicator.

Political impact

Nitish’s many flip-flops may have assured him a firm grip on power, but did it also improve JD(U)’s political fortunes in the state? Figures show a mixed story.

While the JD(U) has improved its performance in the general election, the party has fared poorly in successive state polls.

Even though Nitish has remained the CM of Bihar, it’s his alliance partners RJD and BJP who have managed to win more seats than JD(U) in the last two elections.

In fact, in the previous three elections, JD(U)’s seat share tally has fallen steadily from 115 in 2010 to just 43 in 2020. The party was relegated to the junior ally role after erstwhile NDA partner BJP bagged more seats than Nitish’s JD(U) in 2020.

Poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who was once a close aide of Nitish, said that the Bihar CM was never really comfortable with the BJP alliance.

“From 2017 to 2022, he (Kumar) was with the BJP. But I never found him comfortable because of many reasons. He may have thought that let us experiment with Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance),” Kishor told television news channels in Patna.

Kishor, who had joined the JD(U) and was later removed from the party, said Kumar no longer enjoyed the “teflon-coated” image he once had.

“If you look at the hard facts, there is a huge difference. In 2010, he had 117 MLAs, in 2015 he had 72 and now 43. Many political commentators say his image is teflon-coated. The numbers don’t show that,” he told a TV channel.

The story is slightly different in the Lok Sabha elections though. Interestingly, the JD(U) fared well each time it contested in alliance with BJP and fell to a historic low in 2014 when it was fighting against the saffron party.

This was the time when JD(U) had first severed ties with NDA after the latter’s decision to project Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.

Though the party bounced back in 2019 after rekindling ties with NDA in 2017, the figures show that JD(U)’s political fortunes in Bihar — at least in Lok Sabha elections — were tied heavily to the BJP.

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