Interview | There’s No Greater Terror Than Unemployment: Tejashwi Yadav

These are Bihar elections, not national elections, and addressing hunger and poverty should be the concern, not nationalism, underscores the RJD leader.

Hilsa (Bihar): As the chief ministerial face of Mahagatbandhan, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav has been leading the opposition campaign in Bihar, taking chief minister Nitish Kumar and the National Democratic Alliance head-on. His promise of ten lakh jobs has struck a chord with the youth across the state, and it has ever since has drawn huge crowds to his rallies.

While the Janara Dal (United) has repeatedly raked up the “Jungle Raj”, referring to RJD’s rule between 1990 and 2005, the BJP has stuck to it tried and tested formula of invoking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “successes” on Article 370, Citizenship (Amendment) Act, National Register of Citizens (NRC), and Ram Mandir. Steering clear of emotive traps laid by the NDA camp, Tejashwi Yadav has tried to largely confine his campaigning to unemployment, failure of the government in aiding Bihar’s migrant workers during the pandemic-induced lockdown, and the general wave of anti-incumbency in the state.

The Wire’s Arfa Khanum Sherwani caught up with him on the sidelines of his campaign in Hilsa, near Patna. The interview first appeared in a video format in Hindi. Below is the English translation of the full interview.

Firstly, tell us, are the crowds gathering for your meetings voters or viewers?

Look, all of these people are voters. There is a lot of anger among the people. Maybe it is not right to use the word ‘anger’, it could be ‘hatred’ towards the current government. People have expectations and hopes for which we offer an alternative. So, these youths – they may be of any caste – it is not as if they are from one caste or one community. They belong to all castes, all religions, those who have come here, they belong to all sections. The elderly [and] women too are attending.

For the past 15 years, people have given a lot of chances [to Nitish Kumar]. Even today, Bihar has maximum poverty in the country. Even today, the unemployment rate touches 40.6[%]. The country’s youngest state stands first in unemployment. Education is completely destroyed. You have seen the plight of hospitals – in times of coronavirus, even in times of encephalitis – you have seen the situation.

Migration is a big problem. So, you see, Bihar’s money is going out by the billions, into other states. For education, people migrate. To earn a livelihood, now even for labour, people are migrating! Earlier they used to migrate for jobs. There are hardly any jobs now. There is nothing like an IT [Information Technology] sector. There are no factories. Nitish babu didn’t prop up any for the past 15 years. Now he’s citing the fact that it is a landlocked state. Even if it is a landlocked state, let’s compare it with Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, which [are] much smaller states.

Also read: Tejashwi Yadav, the Leader, Has Arrived

When you envisioned and promised ten lakh jobs, what did you think? That it would really create this kind of excitement?

No, see, we were about to embark on the ‘Berozgaari Hatao’ (Remove Unemployment) tour. We held gatherings in three districts where we received great support on the issue. But then due to the lockdown, we could not finish the tour. After that, you would have seen – during corona [COVID-19], during the pandemic – our worker brothers who are the reality of Bihar – of the government as well as the ground reality…They used to say that we will stop migration; instead, migration has risen in the last 15 years. This is to say that every second family in Bihar is migrating – for education, earning a livelihood [and medical] treatment.

Migration is an old tale in Bihar, and it has only grown over the years. During COVID-19 lockdown, Biharis were the worst affected. But a lot of people are raising questions about your promise of 10 lakh jobs. Even I can promise, though I don’t have state power, and not just 10 lakh jobs. Now, the NDA is promising 19 lakh jobs. Explain the idea to me. How will you give 10 lakh jobs?

This is very simple. You will first have to know the budget of Bihar; how much it amounts to. It is a budget of Rs 2.13 lakh crore. Let us keep this Rs 2.13 lakh crore aside. Within the Bihar government, there already exist vacant positions. How many? 4.5 lakh positions are vacant. Which means that the Bihar government can give 4.5 lakh jobs whenever it wants to, for which you don’t need a separate budget. This is because in the planned budget – there is a planned budget and a non-planned budget – these positions are already provided for. There are no doctors, nurses, compounders, teachers, professors.

In Manipur, which is a small state, there are 1,000 policemen per 1 lakh population, Bihar has only 777 per one lakh. So those [vacant positions] you will have to fill in anyway. If you don’t, how will you improve education [and] health. About 60% junior engineer posts are vacant – how will things get built to improve infrastructure?

So, this does not include agriculture jobs? Since NDA…

No, we’re only talking about government jobs. I would also add that these 4.5 lakh jobs can be given any time since they are vacant. The remaining 5.5 lakh jobs that we have announced are against the national average. Bihar’s budget, like I said, is around Rs 2 lakh crore. You can check the documents of the Bihar government’s budget, which we have studied. We don’t want to make false promises because we want to remain in politics for a long time.

So, we are saying that the Bihar government is able to spend only 60% [of its budget]. It returns the rest of the money; surrenders it. Which is how much? 40 %. 40 % of Rs. 2.13 lakh crore is about Rs 80,000 crore. So, this money exists! If we just had to make claims – why wouldn’t we have said ‘I’ll give 1 crore jobs’. And we are not saying ‘employment’, we’re saying ‘government jobs’. We also have a vision for the factories that are currently shut. Sugar mills, paper mills, jute mills, food processing units – for corn, banana, lychee, foxnuts. Such vast production but Nitishji has not thought about food processing. There would be an increase in tourism given our majestic history.

You would have to be given credit for bringing this election – which seemed as if it would yet again revolve around nationalism, Hindu-Muslim issues – back to the issues of jobs and development. But has this been a calculated exercise, given how, even today, Narendra Modi spoke about Article 370 and the martyrdom of soldiers from Bihar at Galwan Valley in Ladakh?   

Look, one thing must be noted. These are Bihar elections. These are not the national elections. If whatever issues he is bringing up is associated with the country, they are national issues. But this is Bihar’s election. We don’t think there can be any terror greater than unemployment. Hunger, poverty, helplessness, powerlessness, destitute conditions, a creaking system – all these things have to be resolved. If you ask the people – what will they do if they don’t get any employment? Where will they go? You saw the situation of the workers, how the government turned its back on them. Where could they have gone? Where will they stay?

‘There’s no terror greater than unemployment’, this is a commendable thing to say. However, there has been a history of the politics of social justice in Bihar. Lalu Yadav was significant in establishing it. So, I would like to know what is the rationale behind a campaign distanced from the issues of identity.

It was an era. Laluji’s era. In those times, the demand was for social justice. This new era is of economic justice. We…see…as times change, people’s issues too change. People’s demands change too. Laluji has empowered the poor so much that now he [the poor] can even obtain his rights. He takes his rights; earlier, he couldn’t. But now, everyone wants economic justice – whether he is an upper-caste, middle-class, backward, extremely backward. Every class wants economic justice.

But there’s no image of Lalu anywhere in these election campaigns…

No, but even Nitishji had not put any images [of Lalu Yadav] in the 2015 elections. Laluji resides in the hearts of the people. It is not just in Bihar, but in the whole country that we feel no need to put up Laluji’s images. Laluji resides in the hearts of the people who are justice-loving and who believe in secularism [and] social justice.

Was this a conscious decision to drop Lalu’s image?

It is the party’s strategy. Since I have been given the responsibility, I must go amidst the people. The people will ask [actions] of me. I will do [the tasks]. I will be the chief minister, not Laluji. Laluji is a leader, the most important leader. He’s a mass leader. He has no competition. But if I have been given the responsibility, acting as chief minister, then I have to hear out the people.

Also read: Despite BJP Efforts, Bihar’s Election isn’t Revolving Around Discourse of ‘Corruption’

What is the significance of Lalu Yadav in the election?

[His] significance very much exists! Laluji exists in every particle of the people. People understand fully well that Laluji has been made a victim of a conspiracy. November 9 is the date [for his release]. He has been granted [bail] in one case. He has served half his punishment. Whatever the bail conditions are, Laluji fulfils all of them. One is supposed to serve half the term, which he has.

Bihar elections, Bengal elections, Assam elections – these will, in a way, signal waves of change for the entire country. Do you see it this way, that this is that important an election?

People are saying that this agenda has been fixed only for Bihar. We have fixed this agenda for Bengal as well as for other states of the country. Since Bihar had formed the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) last time, an example was set. This time Bihar has set the issue, the agenda – of the poor, the farmers, of unemployment, of the youth, of factories, of jobs. So, I feel that this is not just Bihar’s agenda but will be implemented in the entire country.

Nothing goes against the caste equation in Bihar. But this equation is not in your favour. What gives you the confidence that you will form the government?

People think that in the case of three parties, wherever two parties are together, they will win. Popularity has declined, Nitish Kumarji’s popularity has declined. In the by-elections – which were just after the Lok Sabha elections – we won all seats. BJP couldn’t open its account. It was when Nitishji’s administration intervened that they were able to secure a seat or so. All calculations were precise even then. Now when issues are being talked about, when Nitishji is unable to come up with an answer, he’s resorting to personally attacking me. ‘Where does he go?’, ‘Where does he stay?’. I mean, this is the kind of talk Nitishji

A complaint that people also have is that you have not been very visible in these last five years. You are dispelling this complaint now during these elections, but you have been absent…

This is not the people’s [complaint], this is propaganda…this is not the people’s [complaint]. Opposition parties started this propaganda by concocting a conspiracy, and [they are] spreading it. They refer to the lockdown…many like me were stranded and I arrived in the middle of the lockdown period. The moment I came, I first went amidst the people. When did the chief minister go? It was only after our intervention – the floods and corona [COVID-19] came together – where we kept on saying that you have a helicopter, at least do an aerial survey. He went only after that…for show. Now – corona [COVID-19] existed back then too – why isn’t he going [amidst the people] now? Why, now, doesn’t he say that people should stay put wherever they are?

Also read: Despite BJP Efforts, Bihar’s Election isn’t Revolving Around Discourse of ‘Corruption’

As I was speaking to the people on the roads, [they] are saying that we still remember the extortion, the lawlessness in [your] rule, 15 years ago. What would you like to say to those people, to that voter? Will that era come back again?

This is a propaganda…a perception. When we talk about crime, law and order, there should be a data so that we are able to compare. NCRB data says that. I, too, was in government for 18 months. Why doesn’t he [Nitish] mention my 18-month term? It is I who will be the chief minister. I have been a deputy chief minister. You point out one instance of corruption in my 18-month term. Point out something at least, some fault. Why doesn’t he debate on that? So, if Nitish Kumar ji…now he’s talking about what Laluji did…‘went down on his knees to form the alliance’. Why did he seek Laluji’s alliance? This propaganda is not going to work anymore.

Yes, one thing must be noted: if you go to Gopalganj…people like Amarendra Pandey, Manju Verma who have been [involved] in the Muzaffarpur shelter [case] – these people have consistently been given protection. It has been proved now that they were being protected. We fought against it at Jantar Mantar. But not just this – if there’s 777 policemen per 1 lakh population – what will you do about it? He should at least give people employment…

Aren’t you worried about Narendra Modi’s popularity? Whenever he comes, he sweeps the crowds…

He’s the Prime Minister of the country. He can keep visiting, there is no problem. But he should at least tell what the NITI Aayog report is; why Bihar has remained backward?

Won’t his arrival impact the elections?

He should tell what Sushil Modi has done. He should give an account of Sushil Modi’s work.

Where do you place Chirag Paswan in these elections?

Look, it is clear that Nitishji hasn’t treated him [Chirag Paswan] well. And, Chirag himself has repeatedly said that he is with the BJP. So, if he is with the BJP, then the chapter is closed.

Translated into English by Zobia Salam