New Delhi: Ahead of the Bihar assembly polls, preparations are in full swing with the two major opposition groupings, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Grand Alliance, both having finalised their seat-sharing arrangements. The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the third front, on the other hand, are gearing up to make a dent in the vote bank of the larger alliances.
As far as the division of seats among NDA parties is concerned, out of the total 243 assembly seats in Bihar, the Janata Dal United’s (JDU) share is 115, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 110, Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) 7 and Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) 11. Similarly, the Grand Alliance parties have divided the seats among themselves as follows: Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) 144, Congress 70 and the three Left parties to get 29. Meanwhile, the LJP has decided to field candidates in 143 seats.
In the poll-bound state, there is an anti-incumbency wave against chief minister Nitish Kumar coupled with an angry electorate of migrant labourers returning home due to the sudden imposition of lockdown having lost jobs and facing the threat of floods. The decision of the LJP to field candidates against the JDU has made things tough for Nitish.
The Wire spoke to the national spokesperson of JD(U), K.C. Tyagi, on key issues in the upcoming Bihar assembly elections.
Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
Bihar is the first state to conduct elections since the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the state having reported nearly two lakh cases so far, how do you think it is going to affect the polls?
To conduct elections during the time of the coronavirus pandemic is a major challenge. But it is part of the democratic process to conduct timely elections. Parliamentary polls were recently held in Sri Lanka along with Singapore, South Korea and several other countries. It is believed that the spread of infection was almost negligible after the elections in these places. We have been faced with the challenge for six to seven months, but fortunately, Bihar is not one of the top 15 worst-affected states in the country.
We are going to follow all the guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India (ECI). The elections need to be conducted amid all the challenges implementing the recommendations of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). However, these elections are not going to be as interesting as before. Earlier, huge public meetings were held, rallies were taken out with marches, slogans, throwing gulal on each other, bursting firecrackers, and celebrations across neighbourhoods. We’re going to miss it, but there is no alternative in the current scenario.
Are you certain that the NDA is a stable alliance? Can LJP’s decision to contest against JD(U) be viewed as part of the BJP’s poll strategy?
The LJP and JD(U) have never contested the polls together between 2000 and 2015. So, there are zero chances of them causing any trouble to us. Besides, the alliance is nothing new and has been in place since the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Because of the propaganda of a leader or a party, you are mistaken that there are any differences between the BJP and the JD (U). We are part of the NDA whose leader is Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Centre and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in the state.
The PM, the home minister, the party president, the party spokesperson, as well as Bihar state president of the party have unanimously chosen Nitish Kumar to be the CM face for the elections.
Another propaganda being spread is that in case the BJP wins more seats, the CM will be chosen from the among the ranks of the BJP. The party has clarified that whatever be the poll outcome, Nitish Kumar will remain the leader of the alliance.
Do you sense any conspiracy given that several BJP bigwigs have joined the LJP recently?
Elections symbolise the strategic skills of the political workers of all parties who are part of the election process and are engaged in mass movements. They also have the desire to contest elections. The NDA is such a winning alliance that everyone wants tickets of the alliance parties, but often seat-sharing equations come in the way.
Such problems exist within the party ranks as well, and ticket distribution became a challenge for the BJP and JD(U). With the formation of the alliance, two new parties have come up. Therefore, three or four sitting and former MLAs of the BJP are contesting on LJP tickets. It will have almost zero impact on the elections.
Bihar’s migrant labourers who were stuck in several states and big cities during the countrywide lockdown are miffed with the Nitish Kumar government for its ineffective handling of the crisis. Opposition parties and others accuse the government of not being proactive in bringing them back. Do you think the problem could have been addressed in a better way?
COVID-19 is the biggest tragedy in human history. No calamity that ever struck the human society has been greater than this. Several million people have died in the United States of America and the European Union so far. The disaster has affected not just Bihar and India but has paralysed the entire world. Today, except China, all the major world economies, including India, have slid in the negative. The migrant labourers belong not only to Bihar but hail from several other states. I agree that they had to endure several hardships. The sudden lockdown rendered both permanent and temporary employees jobless. Their landlords pressurised them to vacate houses and they even had to go without food.
At the time of the announcement of lockdown, the prime minister had appealed to people to stay put where they were. Life is more valuable than anything else. Despite this, migrant labourers in Mumbai and Delhi gathered in huge numbers at places like Anand Vihar Bus Station, and both the state governments only mocked the pandemic.
At a time when the World Health Organisation (WHO) had issued an advisory to observe two-yard social distancing, around 10,000 migrant labourers gathered at a single place. In order to contain the spread of infection, the PM and the CM were of the view that people should stay where they were for some time. But when the situation became such that they could no longer stay in their places, train services were made available for them. Rs 5,000 was credited into each Bihar resident’s account, quarantine facilities were provided upon their return, and five kg ration of wheat, rice and pulses was provided to each and every household.
It is true that they faced hardships. Employment opportunities were quite low in Bihar when they returned, but all of them are aware that the government acted responsibly and addressed their social and economic concerns.
As per the 2019 report of the National Statistics Office (NSO), the rate of unemployment in Bihar is 7.2%, which is higher than the national average of 6.1%. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), unemployment in Bihar rose to 46.6% in April 2020, which is 20% more than the national average. The RJD has constantly targeted the Nitish Kumar government over the issue of jobs. If voted to power, Tejaswi Yadav has promised to issue jobs to 10 lakh youth in the first cabinet meet. Do you think unemployment is an issue crucial enough for the Bihar youth to sway them?
I say can they sanction 10 crore jobs even when the population of Bihar is 12 crore? What is the point of making such far-fetched, unrealistic and artificial claims? In which sector do they plan to sanction 10 lakh jobs? If someone asks for a blueprint, they’ll perhaps not have an answer. After the division of Bihar, all the resources were transferred to Jharkhand, including all coal mines, major cities, and education centres. Dhanbad, Ranchi and Tata Nagar have all become part of the new state. Bihar was left with nothing. Tejaswi Yadav ji should recall that during the 15 years of rule by his father and mother, there was no electricity. Today, every household in Bihar has access to electricity. The law and order situation was such that the police stations would shut down at 5 pm, people were kidnapped from public places, ransoms were demanded, labourers and contractors had stopped working on the national highways.
Once, I was travelling with Pramod Mahajan ji (late BJP leader) during elections when our helicopter hit an electric wire and we were scared that we might die. The pilot told us not to worry as there was no electricity there. Today, there is 100% household electrification in Bihar. Much work has been done in the field of education and primary health care. However, there is no doubt that a lot more needs to be done. But in these elections, the issue is Bihar then and now.
Recently, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai, claimed that if RJD wins Bihar polls, terrorists from Kashmir will take shelter in the state. How do the JD (U) and the BJP plan to restrain such aggressive, communal and nationalistic propaganda?
We disagree with many of their (the BJP’s) statements and views. We did not lend them support on the issue of Article 370. The chief minister said in the assembly that the NRC will not be implemented in our state. Similarly, we have a clear opinion regarding the Uniform Civil Code that all the stakeholders of the society should be brought under its purview and no decision should be taken in haste.
It might be the personal opinion of Nityanand Rai, but not the NDA as a whole. We believe that Lalu Yadav’s tenure was jungle raj during which criminals were granted protection yet we do not draw parallels with Jammu and Kashmir.
With RJD supremo, Lalu Prasad Yadav, currently lodged in jail, where do you think the grand alliance stands against the NDA? Would things be different had Lalu Yadav been out of jail?
We came to power after defeating Lalu Yadav. In 2005, and in 2010, he was there and we defeated him. A major chunk of voters is basically against the poor governance of Lalu Yadav. Had he been out of jail, his defeat would have been even worse.
How many seats do you hope to win?
As per the statistics for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the NDA is ahead on 220 out of 243 assembly seats. In 2010, we won 118 seats while the BJP got 92. For us, the challenge is to get at least the same number of seats as we had won in 2010 and the previous Lok Sabha elections.
During the 2015 Bihar assembly polls, the PM had made the controversial ‘DNA’ remark against Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. With their parties joining hands, have the two leaders reconciled?
In the last assembly and Lok Sabha polls, we contested against each other. All parties, leaders, individuals and groups have the right to campaign in favour of or against anyone. The chapter has closed for us. The Bihar government and the state have received a lot of financial help from the Centre in the past. We are closer in the process of building a new Bihar. It is called a government with ‘two engines’, with the Centre and the state working together. After winning the elections with an overwhelming majority, we will once again work together with the Centre for the development of a new Bihar.
Is Special Status to Bihar no longer a poll issue?
The issue of Special Status will always be there. The people of Bihar will have no respite from unemployment, poverty, destitution, and helplessness until and unless Bihar is granted Special Status. We have requested the current regime as also the former Congress regime to grant Special Status to Bihar.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.