Kumar clearly does not intend to rest on his laurels. He maintains a grueling daily schedule, rising every day at 4 a.m. and finishing the morning papers by 6, when he starts directly calling district officials who have drawn critical media attention -- a tactic calculated to keep civil servants on their toes. Every Monday morning he holds public audiences in his official residence in Patna, the state capital. Anybody can petition him there. Every petition or complaint is recorded, and the petitioner receives a tracking number that can be used to follow the status of the action on a government website. No less a figure than U.S. philanthropist Bill Gates has given the reforms his endorsement: "The great works being done here are lessons for other places in the world," he said during one recent visit to Bihar.
Still, Bihar faces more than its share of problems. Poverty still plagues the state. Kumar needs to create more jobs and better infrastructure. Development plans are hindered by a lack of electricity. No new power-generation unit has been set up in the last 20 years, and frequent power cuts disrupt industrial activity. For industry to find Bihar appealing, the state must provide clear land records and rights, as well as make sale and purchase of land easy and uncomplicated. For that the government needs to push for land reform, a politically sensitive subject that would invariably draw ire from the landowners who benefit from the current mess in the land titles and records. And just this month, an inquiry discovered a scam involving faked claims for free meals, uniforms, and scholarships in the states' schools -- which merely underlines the point that Kumar's zeal won't be enough unless it is buttressed by thorough institutional reform.
Yet the sense of hope is palpable. It is best symbolized by a primary school in a light-yellow, three-story modern building in an upper-class neighborhood of Patna. In the first case of its kind in India, the Bihar government confiscated the house from an allegedly corrupt senior under trial. The nearly 100 students of the school are all from poor Dalit (oppressed) castes. Their previous school was a dark, dingy two-room space next to a stinking open sewer. The students now play on the manicured lawns, study in classrooms with marble floors, and use flush toilets and hot water. The novel experiment encourages Indians to believe that unwavering political will can bring about dramatic improvements and make the country a real beacon of democracy. Nitish Kumar and his resurgent Bihar could well serve as their mascot.