He studied to be an engineer but ended up embracing politics. And in a state where many politicians are detested, Nitish Kumar – who took oath on Friday as Bihar’s chief minister – is widely recognized as a rare icon of simplicity and honesty.
Even critics of Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United (JD-U) grudgingly admire his many traits that enabled him to make up with his friend-turned-foe-turned-ally Lalu Prasad and deliver a huge blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP in one of the most bitterly fought assembly elections.
Born in 1951 at Bakhtiyarpur in Patna district to an Ayurvedic physician and Congress leader, Nitish Kumar plunged into politics in the early 1970s at a time when Bihar was in ferment.
The numerous street protests in which he took part slowly turned the ‘Munna’ (child) — as he was known in the family — to a leader, getting elected to the Bihar assembly for the first time in 1985.
He became president of the Yuva Lok Dal in 1987 and secretary general of the then undivided Janata Dal two years later.
He entered the Lok Sabha in 1989 and went on to win five parliamentary elections from Bihar as his popularity soared. But as he grew and grew in stature, he kept his family away from politics.
A minister of state in the V.P. Singh government, he became railway minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government but resigned when a train disaster claimed the lives of about 250 commuters.
He returned to the cabinet as the minister for surface transport and agriculture. Even as his former friend Lalu Prasad – a successful politician in his own right – earned notoriety for his brash conduct and corruption, Nitish Kumar came to be recognized for his moderate approach to everything.
He is a teetotaller who detests tobacco. Over time, he became an advocate of equitable development and good governance, which Bihar seemed to lack.
Nitish Kumar became the chief minister of Bihar for the first time in 2000 but his government was shortlived. He had to resign within a week as he failed to prove his majority in the assembly.
By then, Nitish Kumar had come out of Lalu Prasad’s shadow and charted his own course.
In 2005, he teamed up with the BJP — a party he had opposed for years — to take power in the state again and end the 15 long years of reign by Lalu Prasad. He led the coalition to victory again in 2010.
The rise of Narendra Modi in the BJP, however, upset Nitish Kumar, who walked out of the 17-year-long alliance.
After the BJP led by an aggressive Modi swept the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Nitish Kumar made way for colleague Jitan Ram Manjhi, only to reclaim the post.
The JD-U stalwart is credited with re-laying roads that had virtually ceased to exist, building over 12,000 bridges and 66,000 roads, completing long-delayed infrastructure projects, appointing more than three lakh school teachers and ensuring that doctors attended health centres.
He also cracked down on criminals with strong links to politics. Speedy trials were ordered against 85,000 criminals, many of them politicians. All this was a veritable revolution in Bihar.
When the assembly elections were called this year, it became another prestige battle between Modi and Nitish Kumar. This time, having made up with Lalu Prasad, he humbled the prime minister in an election result which most pundits said would have national repurcussions.
That much was evident when top leaders of non-BJP parties made it a point to attend his swearing in on Tuesday.
His aides say Nitish Kumar is a firm believer in hard work and has a vision. In the decade he governed Bihar, the state made news for economic development. The law and order situation pointedly improved.
“It was the technocrat in him that reflected in his bid to develop Bihar. Nitish Kumar became a ‘vikas purush’ (man of development). Even his critics agree,” JD-U state president Vashisht Narain Singh, who has known Nitish Kumar since the 1990s, said.