Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Our PM nominee must feel for poor states: Nitish Kumar

19 Jun, 2012, 02.17AM IST, PR Ramesh & Ashok K Mishra,ET Bureau

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance should lose little time in announcing its prime ministerial candidate, says Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. In an exclusive interview with ET, Kumar explains that time is ripe for NDA to gain from the lapses of the Congress-led coalition at the Centre. However, he makes it amply clear, without taking names, that his party will not accept Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's leadership. He adds, though, that he is not eyeing the post himself. Kumar speaks about the challenge of turning Bihar around, the Centre's unhelpful approach and a lot more in a wide-ranging conversation. Excerpts:

You have recently said that the next prime minister should have secular credentials. Was your comment aimed at nudging your coalition partner, BJP, to name NDA's next prime ministerial candidate?

I have explained my preference for the leader. We have projected our prime ministerial candidate in every election since 1996. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the NDA's prime ministerial nominee in 1996 and 1998. The alliance projected Atalji again in 1999 and 2004. And it was Advaniji in 2009. The NDA will have to declare its nominee. The electorate should know who they are voting for and who will lead the country. The NDA should have a leader who can feel for the underdeveloped states like Bihar. It should not be someone who can develop developed states, but who has a feel for underdeveloped states.

Do you think it is already time for NDA to name its candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls?

NDA should declare its candidate in advance. This leader should be acceptable to every constituent of the alliance. To me, the leader of the coalition should have secular credentials. It should be someone who has absolute faith in democratic values. In a multi-religious and multi-lingual country like ours, the leader should not have rough edges in his personality. An alliance can win the confidence of the people only if the leader is seen as accommodating.

Will you force a decision on this issue before the election?

I have said that the NDA should announce its candidate well before the election and I will put forward this view when the issue comes up in NDA.

Are you in the running for the prime minister's post?

I am not in the race for prime ministership. I cannot even dream of that high office. The prime minister should be from the bigger party. We can only play a supporting role. But that depends on who leads the alliance. I have already outlined the qualities required of the leader.

You have declared Bihar out of bounds for Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi...

BJP has capable leaders in Bihar to lead the alliance's campaign. We have been doing it since 1996. We don't need external assistance. We have bettered our performance in every election since 1996. I have cordial relations with Bihar BJP. But if someone is bent on spoiling this relationship, I cannot help.

Is someone trying to spoil this relationship?

Some things are quite visible. If you want things to stay smooth, external forces should not be allowed to intervene.

Do you see the possibility of a political realignment before the next general election?

I cannot predict the nature of political realignment. NDA has the potential to attract new parties to its fold, particularly since Congress is experiencing a meltdown. The states that backed Congress in 2009 have already slipped out of its control. Look at Andhra Pradesh, Congress' biggest catchment area. Besides, it is a failure in dealing with the crises facing the country, particularly the economy.

You have been hailed for bringing Bihar back on the growth path, but why isn't the poverty level falling in the state despite high growth?

Firstly, I have never claimed that poverty levels have fallen in the state. We have been contesting the Centre's poverty estimates. The Tendulkar Committee's findings were closer to our assessment. The ongoing socio-economic caste census is expected to provide an accurate estimate. According to us, the state has a BPL (below poverty line) population of 1.4 crore. And this is our rationale for demanding special category status for the state. I am appalled by some experts claiming that the Bihar miracle story is over. Even my political adversaries admit that Bihar is not what it used to be seven years ago.

Yet many people doubt your model of development...

I must say that these people are oblivious to ground reality. We have adopted an agriculture-based model, because 70 per cent people are dependent on agriculture, and it is showing impressive results. The current growth of over 13 per cent is on account of this. A middle-class with spending power is also emerging in the state. We have prepared an agri roadmap for the next five years based on discussions with all stakeholders - farmers, agri scientists and people's representatives. The roadmap is expected to give a further boost to the economy. But all this will not suffice. We need support from the Centre to drive forward the growth story, which will not only bring down the level of poverty but also create new opportunities for the people. If Bihar has to speedily catch up with developed states, the Centre will have to concede our long-pending demand for special category status, which is absolutely necessary for scripting a big picture growth story.

But big industry is yet to establish base in Bihar...

The solution is not big industry. The small-scale sector is booming in the state. There is a huge potential for agro-based industries and even sugar sector, which can play a big role in boosting the rural economy. For long, Bihar used to be counted for its booming sugar sector, but over the years it fell on bad times. One by one, all the state-owned sugar mills shut down. But thanks to our initiative, we have been able to revive two closed sugar mills at Lauriya and Sugauli. We could have done a lot, but the Centre has not withdrawn its contentious sugar control order, which places restriction on the production of ethanol from cane juice. The biggest hurdle for large investments is the approach of the Centre, which is not allowing coal linkage even for the capacity expansion of state-owned Barauni thermal power station. We have numerous power project proposals from private players, but coal linkage remains the problem. The Centre is just not being helpful. The large investments that the state has made in infrastructure will, however, change the scenario.
Given challenges that you have faced, are you satisfied with the progress?

When I took over in November 2005, the only 'modern' equipment in the chief minister's office was a Remington typewriter. The state had not a single MW power generation. Roads just didn't exist. The energy department officials did not know what PPA (power purchase agreement) or the DPR (detailed project report) meant, or that the lack of milling facility was forcing people to send rice to Uttar Pradesh. We did not have flour mills - aatta was coming from outside. Per capita energy consumption was 72 units (against the national average of 700 units). The scenario was depressing to say the least.

The change is there for all to see. The state which functioned on a Remington typewriter won the e-governance award. You can reach Patna from any district, barring Kishenganj, in neat six hours. Was that the case seven years ago? Those who ruled before me have begun travelling by roads - they were using helicopters to visit their ancestral homes.

The human development index is showing a remarkable improvement. A decade ago, just 12 per cent could get immunisation - now, the figure stands at 70 per cent. No polio case has been reported in the state. The primary heath centres are another success story. On an average, just 39 people visited primary health centres, which means, one a day. Today, around 10,000 people go to these health centres. The functioning of other health institutions has also improved considerably.

How have you empowered the average citizen?

The right to service has empowered the common people who were harassed by the bureaucracy. I used to get complains about bribery from citizens every day. The number of complaints has dipped in the recent months. This shows the Act is being implemented. There is fear of the law. We have a law that empowers the government to confiscate properties of corrupt officials. We have converted these properties into schools. My task is not just running the government. My first task was to change the mindset. It is the same police force and the same bureaucracy. But I have set standards for governance. The FIRs (first information reports) are no longer prepared in Patna, so the investigations have improved.

Through my seva yatras, I am taking the government to the grassroots. I travel to every district headquarters and stay there for four to five days. Along with the chief secretary, the director general of police and other officials, I see the progress of our initiatives on the ground and redress the grievances of the people. I always lead from the front. I believe hands-on approach alone will work.

Do you feel weighed down by the expectations from your government?

I know the expectations are very high from my government, but I have tried to turn every adversity into an opportunity. When my party lost by-elections or faced similar setbacks, I did not withdraw into my office in Patna. It (the setbacks), in fact, energised me into putting in more work, and the result is there for everyone to see.

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