The dark side of India’s ‘Mr Clean’

Recent assassinations betray how Bihar’s much-praised Chief Minister – Nitish Kumar – is in bed with reputed criminals.

Elderly voters ride on a cycle rickshaw
The economy of Bihar, where more than half the population lives in poverty, grew by 13 per cent last year [AFP]

Patna, India – At a time when many Indians hold their politicians in contempt, Nitish Kumar stands out as an object of veneration.

The chief minister of the northern state of Bihar, Kumar is seen at home and abroad as a miracle worker who has brought the rule of law and economic development to a place long seen as a pit of criminality and suffering. The economy of India’s poorest state – where more than half of its 103 million people live in poverty – grew by about 13 per cent last year.

Even Bill Gates and Robert Zoellick, when he was president of the World Bank, came to witness the Bihar miracle up close. Kumar, The Economist effused in January 2010, “has uprooted the Jungle Raj, restoring law and order”.

Despite a reputation of personal probity and an apparently bona fide zeal for governance and development, Kumar has long kept silent on one bit of cognitive dissonance. Violent crime may have declined during his tenure, but as a recent political assassination reveals, Bihar’s “Mr Clean” is himself surrounded by reputed gangsters.

Like many an Indian state, the power structure in Bihar rests on a pillar of violence – a nexus of racketeers, landlords, contractors and ward-heelers that bring out the right voters and suppress the wrong ones at election time. Kumar governs with a strong hand; no one gets on the ruling party ticket without his approval.

In 2007, one of the state’s leading reputed politician-gangsters, Anant Singh, was implicated in a grisly rape and murder. This didn’t prevent Kumar from allowing him on the ballot in 2010, or from campaigning for his re-election. Kumar did allow justice to take its course in the murder conviction of Munna Shukla, another criminal partyman, but he also allowed Shukla’s wife to replace him in the assembly. 

 India orders investigation over slain political activist

Kumar’s political reliance on accused killers doesn’t appear in the well-polished narrative of rising Bihar. The mask fell last month after the murder of the popular leader of a militia of wealthy landlords.

On June 1, Brahmeshwar Singh was gunned down in a dirt alleyway in Bihar’s Bhojpur district. Police officials said the main suspect is Hulas Pandey, a reputed ganglord and a local political rival who also happens to be an appointed member of the upper house of Bihar’s legislature. Who appointed him? Kumar’s ruling Janata Dal (United) party. Hulas Pandey has declared his innocence.

The suspect’s brother, Sunil Pandey, is an elected member of Bihar’s lower house, also with Kumar’s party. Sunil’s criminal record includes pending charges of murder and kidnapping. Both brothers were members of Brahmeshwar Singh’s militia, the Ranvir Sena, which massacred more than 270 landless peasants during feudal land wars in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

I met Singh a few days before he was killed, and watched as his supporters rioted in the district seat of Ara and then were allowed to terrorise the state capital on the day of his funeral.

How could they be stopped? The murder victim, the murder suspects, and the rioters all represent a key pillar of Kumar’s support – landlords of the Bhumihar and Rajput castes.

Asked to account for the lawlessness, the powerful head of the state police implied what everyone knew: politics had tied his hands. “I am a small fry in the system,” he said in an interview with a local television station.

Bihar was deeply, despairingly backward when Kumar took power. Seven years later, it still is. But with impressive, difficult initiatives in public health and other sectors, it’s clear Nitish Kumar is governing for the future, even as he tries to ignore his compromised past.

With the Hindu-nationalist BJP party as his junior partners, Kumar first took power in 2005 by a narrow electoral margin; he can’t relish that alleged gunmen made the difference. Now, there’s no getting rid of them. 

Kumar “rode a tiger” to unseat Bihar’s incumbent government in 2005, a ruling party man told the Kolkata Telegraph, and “now he is afraid to dismount”.

Long-time journalist Dan Morrison is a reporter with National Geographic News, based in South Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera