The irony of two potential prime ministerial contenders for 2014, who are widely considered less-than-subtle adversaries, finding some glory in the US media is not registered on anyone here. However, some in India might notice. Or, at the very least, your columnist has. In recent months Modi has featured on the cover of "Time" magazine’s Asian edition as well in the pages of "The Economist" and "The Washington Post".
The Foreign Policy mention is perhaps the first major acknowledgement of Bihar chief minister's development-focused governance. Listing the Bihar chief minister at number 77, the accompanying brief piece about him says, “Like Haiti, Somalia, and Mississippi, India's Bihar state has been called many unflattering names; it's often referred to as the country's 'bleakest state' and the 'jungle Raj' for its colonial levels of poverty and corruption. Many viewed it as one of the most dysfunctional corners of a country world famous for government dysfunction. Much of that began to change, however, when a low-key bureaucrat from a local centre-left party, Nitish Kumar, won the 2005 election and set out to clean up a wasteland where 100 million people are squeezed into a territory smaller than Arkansas.
If Modi has managed to capture the imagination of many outside India, Kumar has had his own high in the form of a recent visit to Pakistan where he was warmly received and held up as an example of good governance.
“In his two terms in office, he has done just that, relying on an array of innovative programs to crack down on crime, shame corrupt public officials, and boost economic development. In addition to setting up a special fast-track court system to move trials along more quickly, Kumar's administration has offered cash rewards to whistleblowers and has broadcast bribery complaints on YouTube,” it says.
To be sure, while Kumar is the only Indian out of India to make the cut, there are many others of Indian origin on the list, including Dr. Raghuram Rajan, chief economic advisor to India's finance ministry, Harvard University economist Raj Chetty, author Salman Rushdie, writer Pankaj Mishra, Canadian Ricken Patel of the civic organization Avaaz, entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, and Morgan Stanley managing director Ruchir Sharma.
The write-up, listing Kumar at 77th spot, is perhaps first major acknowledgement of his development-focused rule. It describes in detail as to how Bihar CM, after winning 2005 poll, set out to clean up administration in a state viewed as the 'most dysfunctional corner' of India.
The magazine does take note of Kumar’s rise as a possible contender for the post of Prime Minister in 2014. “Although Kumar says he's not a candidate to replace (Manmohan) Singh, he is now being floated as a potential Prime Minister for 2014. Quite a leap for the leader of a region once decried as a 'criminal fiefdom'," reads the write-up.
It further says, “He has overseen the construction of nearly 15,000 schools, hired 150,000 new teachers, launched a programme to give free bikes to girls so they can get to class, and distributed free radios to lower-caste citizens to "listen to music, news, and improve your areas of information," as he put it.”
Such lists do not mean much in terms of their actual impact on political careers but they act as a sort of weathervane capturing changing winds. Unlike Modi, who enjoys perhaps an equal measure of admiration and notoriety within the mainstream circles in Washington as well as Indian and Pakistan expatriates, Kumar is a relative unknown. That may have something to do with the demographics of the Indian Americans, where Gujarati immigrants dominate while Bihari immigrants are much fewer in numbers.
The magazine does take note of Kumar’s rise as a possible contender for PM's post in 2014. Compared to Modi, Kumar is relatively unknown in US but that may be attributed to - besides issues surrounding Modi - the dominating presence of Gujarati immigrants compared to those from Bihar.
If Modi has managed to capture the imagination of many outside India, including compelling Britain to end its diplomatic isolation of his government in general and him in particular, Kumar has had his own high in the form of a recent visit to Pakistan where he was warmly received, feted and held up as an example of good governance. It is highly debatable whether Modi will get even an invitation from Gujarat’s immediate neighbour to its west, let alone a warm reception.
Although there is nothing specific to suggest so far that either Modi or Kumar would find themselves catapulted to the national stage in the prime ministerial sweepstakes, to the extent that they are being noticed well outside their own domains speaks to their own public relations success.