Narendra Modi vs Nitish Kumar: Who makes for a better PM

Who makes a better choice as prime minister: Narendra Modi or Nitish Kumar? Examine their track records.

Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar Photo: Vivan Mehra Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar <em>Photo: Vivan Mehra</em>
Trimmed grey beard, saltand-pepper hair, thinframe spectacles, chubby cheeks, born within months of each other. The similarities between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar end there. Everything else about them is so different that Kumar still regrets sharing a stage with Modi four years ago. But one more thing binds them together. Either could become the Prime Minister in 2014, depending on the way the polls go.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's Modi, of course, has all but thrown his hat in the ring, widening his reach through carefully chosen forums in New Delhi like the Sri Ram College of Commerce and the India Today Conclave. The day after the conclave, Kumar had his own show in the capital, the Adhikar Rally, to seek special status for Bihar, at which he chose to call himself the kingmaker.

At odds with the National Democratic Alliance, which his Janata Dal (United) is a part of, and as yet coy of embracing the United Progressive Alliance he is too wise to go any further.

But imagine he does go further, imagine Rahul Gandhi forgoes his poison of power, imagine a US-like shootout between Kumar and Modi, who would you vote for? Let us try and make your job easier.

That, by the way, is easier said than done. The two are chief ministers of states as different as their own personalities. Modi's Gujarat is affluent, entrepreneurial, enterprising, industrialised and blessed with the longest coastline of any state. Every bit of Kumar's Bihar lives up to the status he seeks for it: backward.

Not surprisingly, Modi fuels his ambition with talk of development  whereas Kumar, almost intoning the protagonist of The Dirty Picture puts his faith in "governance, governance, governance". These are not choices made out of free will; they are products of their milieus.

Gujarat has for decades been among the most economically developed states. Bihar spent those years hurtling to the bottom, with a generous nudge from the Lalu Prasad-Rabri Devi franchise.

In 2005, the year Kumar started his second attempt at governing Bihar - he was chief minister for a week in 2000 - you would have struggled to find company on the streets of Patna after dark. Shops' shutters went down with the sun, not because of a power outage. Even the two most successful professionals in the state, doctors and lawyers, would own only small cars, not out of fear of a tax raid. And families would not dream of watching late night shows in theatres, and not because children had to hit the bed early.

Only the so-called bahubalis would celebrate their success with a show of wealth or be out having fun after dark. Roads were counted in potholes and the description of governance as jungle raj was only a slight exaggeration.

The bifurcation of the state in 2000 had put all natural resources in Jharkhand. Industrial ventures had either closed or moved out of the state. "In 2004, the proposed investments in Bihar constituted a mere 0.1 per cent of the total investments in the country," says Rajesh Chakrabarti, Executive Director of Bharti Institute of Public Policy at the Indian School of Business, Mohali.

Kumar brought back the rule of law. He appointed hand-picked officers, armed with a clear brief and a free hand. There was to be zero tolerance of crime and arrests would lead to convictions. Now, you can find life in Patna even after sunset. And why only Patna, even the hinterland throbs with activity.

About 3,500 km of roads were built in 2009/10 alone, compared to less than 400 km in 2004/05. Bidding processes were streamlined. A carrot-and-stick policy made contractors deliver. The state grew at an average of 11.7 per cent between 2006 and 2012. Some critics call it "catch-up" growth, but even they did not expect the turnaround.

There has been a huge jump in the number of people visiting healthcare centres. The child immunisation ratio is better than the national average.

About 200,000 temporary teachers were appointed to fill the shortage in primary schools; it is a different thing that they are now agitating for permanent status. Big industries have started to look at Bihar for investments.

But, for now, they are doing no more than looking. The power sector remains a non-starter with few coal linkages. Other sectors have not taken off either. Perhaps Kumar thinks getting special category status for Bihar, which enables greater incentives, will attract private investment. For now, though, his concerns are delivering the basics to the common man: better health-care, education, infrastructure and, of course, rule of law.

All of those would be important to Modi, but none would occupy too much of his time. Gujarat went beyond those ages ago, despite an unusual period of sharp fall in growth between 1998 and 2002 due to droughts and an earthquake.

Modi replaced Keshubhai Patel as Chief Minister in October 2001. His reputation as chief minister suffered its biggest blow right in the beginning, with the handling of the post-Godhra riots in 2002. "Modi had to find a good way to cover his tracks for the administrative failures in preventing the post-Godhra riots. He found that focusing on industrialisation and governance would provide him dividends," says Ashish Nandy, a political psychologist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

The dividends are coming. At the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in February, a bevy of industrialists seemed to be putting money on Modi, heaping unabashed praise on him. Indeed, Modi has been a big hit with big business.

In contrast, Kumar hangs on to his socialistic moorings and prefers not to be seen as close to big industrialists. "Narendra Modi's development model is pro-industry," says Sebastian Morris, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

At the India Today Conclave, Modi enunciated his economic views clearly. "The government has no business to be in business," he said, and added that even the Railways should be privatised. A minute or so into his speech, he paused to screen a documentary. The first item in it was about how Gujarat had turned around its agriculture, which he claimed grew at an average of nine per cent over 10 years, while the figure for the country was 3.2 per cent.

The biggest contributor to this turnaround, which the documentary may have been too short to capture, was the Sardar Sarovar Dam, originally conceived by Sardar Vallabhai Patel and worked upon by several governments. Its waters began to flow only in 2001, ending the spell of droughts. When Modi speaks about Gujarat being the leader in milk production, he forgets to mention the role played by Verghese Kurien in Anand, over decades.

To Modi's credit, the power scenario has improved dramatically. The restructuring of the state electricity board took it from losses of Rs 2,543 crore in 2001 to a profit of Rs 624 crore 10 years later. Overall, the state has grown at an average of 11 per cent between 2002 and 2012. Bakul Dholakia, Director of the Adani Institute of Infrastructure Management in Ahmedabad, says poverty levels dropped from 31 per cent in 2004/05 to 23 per cent by 2009/10. Still, Gujarat has a poor record on certain social indicators.

The UNICEF website's profile of Indian states, for instance, says almost every second child below five in Gujarat is undernourished.

Indeed, some see Modi's success as a triumph of style. Investors point out that they do not even have to meet, say, the state's industry minister for approvals. Can future chief ministers of Gujarat replicate this?

"Modi's governance model has quicker decision-making. But it is authoritarian," says Morris. Modi has always worked as the head of a majority government. Kumar, on the other hand, has shimmied adroitly through coalition calculations, a skill that may come in handy in 2014.

Unlike Kumar, who has held at least three portfolios at the Centre, Modi has not held an office outside his state. For context, five chief ministers have gone on to become Prime Ministers. Of them, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Viswanath Pratap Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda led unstable governments that did not last a full term. And the one who did last the distance, P.V. Narasimha Rao, was not really a star chief minister.

So, if that shootout did indeed take place, would you be any the wiser?