New Delhi: The poor handling of the recent floods in Bihar has been all over the news, not so much for opposition criticism as much for chief minister Nitish Kumar’s crude remarks.
The Janata Dal (United) leader, known to be politically-deft and calm, unexpectedly lost his cool when he faced a barrage of questions from journalists on the state machinery’s efforts to contain rising water levels in the capital city, Patna.
“Is water in some parts of Patna the only problem we have?” he asked journalists, prodding them to do invest their time and energy on public awareness programmes rather than putting his government on the dock.
Floods in large parts of Bihar were a natural calamity arising out of unusually high rainfall this year, he argued. He further asked why were his counterparts were not asked the same questions when Maharashtra or Karnataka were similarly flooded. He added that even America faced higher rainfall this year.
Despite his reticence, the questions have not stopped. Now that water has receded in most parts of the state, his political opponents have upped their ante, flooding him with questions.
As it is with everything in Bihar, flood management by the state government has attained political colour, with the opposition listing it as one of the many failures of Nitish, who is often called Sushasan Babu (‘leader known for good governance’).
The Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav, who is battling dissension in his own party has hit out at the chief minister for ignoring people’s everyday life issues, an example of which he said was seen in the way he responded to the devastation caused by floods. He said that by shifting the blame on “nature’s fury”, Nitish had refused to acknowledge what was a near collapse of civic amenities in Bihar.
He said that people of Bihar will “speak at the polling booth” and give a befitting response to the BJP-JD(U) state government’s “insensitivity”.
“Floods, water logging, acute encephalitis syndrome deaths, Muzaffarpur shelter home case are not natural calamities but government-created disasters due to corruption,” the former Bihar deputy chief minister said.
“The day Mr Sushil Modi was rescued by the NDRF team, many in Bihar said that the entire government should have been rescued,” the 29-year-old leader said.
When asked whether there is a possibility ahead of the assembly elections in late 2020 of Nitish Kumar returning to the mahagathbandhan, Yadav was clear. “He (Kumar) did not simply betray us but also the core principles on which secular-socialist politics stands. It is not us alone but also people believing in progressive politics who are unwilling to accommodate a chameleon-like character.”
Yadav and Kumar had a bitter falling out after the latter ditched the secular alliance in July 2017 and joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance to form the government in the state. However, after the RJD-led coalition faced a humiliating defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, many in his party, including his mother Rabri Devi and senior leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, have indicated that the party was positively discussing Nitish Kumar’s return to the mahagathbandhan if a conducive situation could arise at some point.
However, Yadav seems entirely apathetic to the idea.
The idea itself germinated from the rumours that all was not well in the NDA camp. In early September, BJP MLC Sanjay Paswan triggered a string of speculations when he advocated for Nitish to shift to New Delhi. “We have complete faith in Nitish Kumar’s honesty, good governance and competence,” Paswan told the media.
“My only request is that Nitish ji should also trust the BJP the way we have trusted him as chief minister for 15 years and let the BJP have one term [as Bihar CM]. Either Sushil Modi or Nityanand Rai can be given a chance.”
Kumar’s long-time rival in the NDA and Union minister Giriraj Singh supported Paswan’s call. What is apparent is that the BJP in Bihar is no longer content with playing the junior partner in the alliance. The way Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have consolidated the saffron party’s ground nationally has kindled hope among the BJP’s rank and file in Bihar.
Further, the victories in Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Tripura where BJP was non-existent historically or relied on a regional party have cemented these aspirations among Bihar’s BJP leaders.
This reflected in the way Giriraj Singh launched an underhanded attack on Nitish Kumar when he was battling allegations of poor management during the recent floods. While terming his flood management “inept”, he said the NDA “owed an apology to the people of Patna.”
He also tweeted a video of one JD(U) MLA Narendra Singh, in which he is seen attacking the state government and Begusarai district administration for its mishandling of the floods. Giriraj, while posting his video wrote, “A week ago, when I had warned some senior officers (with regard to floods and functioning of the administration), one of the Bihar ministers had taken their side. The negative impact of politicisation of officers can be seen today in the words of Matihani’s JD(U) MLA who has expressed his pain. I thank him for airing his grievances. If telling the truth means being rebellious, then I am a rebel.”
हफ्ता पहले मैंने अधिकारियों को चेतावनी दी तो बिहार सरकार के एक मंत्री उसके पक्ष में आ गए,अधिकारियों का राजनीतिकरण का दुष्परिणाम आज मटिहानी से JDU के मा० MLA बोगो बाबू के पीड़ा के रूप में बाहर आया,पीड़ा व्यक्त करने हेतु कोटिशः धन्यवाद।
सच कहना अगर बगावत है तो समझो हम भी बागी हैं। pic.twitter.com/8jgMidol40
— Shandilya Giriraj Singh (@girirajsinghbjp) September 30, 2019
At another event, when Giriraj was asked whether the chief minister should be held accountable for the devastation caused by floods, he remarked, “ Jab taali sardar ko to gaali bhi sardar ko (when the leader gets praised for achievements, he should face criticism for failures too)”.
Deputy chief minister Sushil Modi has tried to cool temperatures and put speculation to rest. Modi who is considered to have a cordial relationship with the chief minister tweeted to say that Nitish Kumar still holds the reins in Bihar alliance. “Nitish Kumar is the captain of the NDA in Bihar and will remain its captain in next assembly elections in 2020 also.”
JD(U) spokespersons hit out at the dissenting members of the alliance, with one of them, Sanjay Singh, comparing Giriraj to “not even a speck of dust on Nitish Kumar’s feet.”
However, soon another alliance partner Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Jan Shakti Party muddied the waters again, when in an interview to The Hindu he said, “Nitish Kumar is our captain and he will continue unless if the BJP decides to bring in a different captain.”
Clearly, not everything is fine in the BJP-JD(U)-LJP alliance. And the floods could not have come at a worse time for Nitish Kumar. Even as he was battling dissension within, water logging at various places exposed his carefully-cultivated perception as an able administrator. Media reports that pointed out that the state government did not respond promptly enough to the India Meteorological Department’s multiple warnings about heavy rainfall in the state too did him no good.
The alliance between the BJP and the JD(U) in Bihar has always been a tricky one since 2005. Political and electoral convenience rather than ideological camaraderie has always been the most crucial aspect of this partnership.
Despite the alliance, Nitish Kumar has taken care to retain a substantial section of Dalits, economically-backward classes (EBC) and Muslims by holding on to his secular and backward caste credentials. This has reflected in his opposition to the BJP-ruled Centre from time to time. In recent times, he has been opposing the Modi government’s plans to implement the National Register of Citizens across India. He also stood against the Centre on issues like criminalisation of triple talaq and reading down of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.
Yet, barring the period between 2013 and 2017 – when Nitish Kumar quit the NDA as protest against BJP’s decision to promote Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate – he has always ended up with the winning side. The unorganised, largely self-serving opposition in Bihar, knowingly or unknowingly, has often helped him in his march to power.
It remains to be seen how soon he navigates his way out of the latest crisis he is up against currently.