NITISH LOSES THE HALO
Poor governance and inaction on terror take the sheen off a chief minister fighting for survival
After the blast, there was gas, a lot of it from Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. “We can’t rule out the terror angle, but let’s not jump to conclusions. Let the investigating agencies do their job,” he said. The Chief Minister was addressing the press after a series of bomb blasts at the venue of Narendra Modi’s Gandhi Maidan rally in Patna on October 27 killed six people and injured 83 others. The bombs missed Modi. But they blasted the myth of Nitish as a no-nonsense leader. His words only added to the impression that the JD(U) leader was politicising the terror attack that exposed his administration’s failures.
One-and-a-half hours before the serial blasts, an alert railway policeman nabbed two terrorists with three live bombs from a public toilet at Patna’s railway station. The two alleged operatives of the terrorist group Indian Mujahideen ( IM) revealed the plot to the police, who, however, still failed to locate and defuse the 15 bombs planted at the rally site, or warn the participants. A stampede that could have killed many more was narrowly averted as nine of the bombs did not explode. A day after the blasts, Nitish ignored demands from security experts, including former home secretary R.K. Singh, on the need to fix responsibility, as that would have meant removing his acolyte, Bihar DGP Abhayanand.
In November 2005, after winning the state Assembly elections, Nitish did not waste a moment. He fired his minister Jitan Ram Manjhi only hours after he had taken oath, when a controversy over Manjhi’s involvement in a fake degree scam surfaced. Today, he prefers shifting the blame than addressing the root of a problem.
It is a spectacular fall for a Chief Minister who once delivered good roads and health facilities and, most importantly, improved law and order in his first full term, that lasted till November 2010. Today, it is all about survival, after the BJP-JD(U) separated. He heads a minority government that is dependent on four Congress MLAs and as many Independents for survival.
Ironically, things have gone downhill for Nitish since he parted ways with BJP. Governance has suffered. The state is battered by a shooting crime rate, corruption and inept handling of administrative challenges. In August, the state witnessed a communal flare-up in Nawada and caste violence in Sasaram, both resulting in deaths. There has also been an unusually high 18 communal clashes recorded in just one month after the BJP-JD(U) break-up.
Nitish set up a commission to probe the police firing in Bagaha where eight tribals were killed. But he handed over the probe into the Bodh Gaya serial blasts, the state’s first ever terror attack in which two people were seriously injured, to NIA. He squarely blamed the principal for the July 17 deaths of 23 children who were poisoned after eating mid-day meal at their school. He did not, however, answer why it took seven hours to transport the dying children to a hospital in Patna.
GO-SLOW ON TERROR
Over the past few months, IM had made Bihar both a sanctuary and a target. Under Nitish, however, Bihar Police has displayed a marked reluctance to take them head-on. At the heart of this reluctance is his fear of losing Muslim votes in districts of north Bihar. A senior IPS officer, on his way to East Champaran to interrogate IM mastermind Yasin Bhatkal—caught by IB with state police help in August—was told to abort his journey midway. His bosses told him Bihar would have nothing to do with the Bhatkal probe.
Bihar Police subsequently handed over the investigations into the Bodh Gaya blasts over to NIA, and also shied away from taking credit for the arrest of Bhatkal, who, in his alias as the homeopathic doctor Imran, lived for years in Madhubani and Darbhanga districts and set up a terror module
with a dozen Muslim youth. “Any other police force would have taken Bhatkal and his aide Haddi on remand, and probed their links to the state. But Bihar Police only made excuses for not doing so,” says a senior IPS officer.
At Modi’s Patna rally, security was lax and the bombers walked into the venue and planted their deadly IEDS. The state ignored intelligence alerts based on Bhatkal’s interrogation, which pointed to his understudy Tahsim Akhtar, alias Monu, planning further bomb attacks. Monu is believed to be the mastermind behind the October 27 Gandhi Maidan bombings, and is now on the run.
THE DOWNHILL SLIDE
Nitish began his second full term as Bihar chief minister in 2010 on a high. The BJP-JD(U) combine bettered its 2005 poll performance. It swept 206 of the 243 Assembly seats and marginalised the RJD, LJP and Congress. Nitish immediately introduced a series of welfare schemes, such as a Right to Service Act to ensure timely delivery of public serv-
THE BOMBS MISSED MODI BUT THEY BLASTED THE MYTH OF NITISH AS A NO-NONSENSE LEADER.
ices, and abolished the much-abused discretionary funds for MLAs.
The slide in his popularity began sometime in September 2012, when 250,000 contractual schoolteachers, unhappy at payment disparities with their permanent counterparts, converted Nitish’s Adhikar Yatra into a platform for their protest. They waved black flags at the Chief Minister and stoned his convoy in almost all the districts he covered. His government gave in, and sanctioned a Rs 3,000-salary hike each for contractual schoolteachers from September 2013.
Sometime last year, Nitish began cosying up to the Centre, with which he solicited special status for Bihar. The
UPA Government, though, is yet to accord any such status to the state.
Patna’s political circles are agog with suggestions that while even now, the Chief Minister is desperately seeking a face-saver from the Centre in any form, Congress has demanded a firm commitment of alliance in the face of his dalliance with the third front. It is being suggested that Nitish had struck a deal with Congress to maintain silence over the myriad scams and runaway inflation during UPA 2. “Nitish is begging the Centre to grant Bihar special status so that he can gain stature among Bihar’s politicians,” says Lok Janshakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan. “But the people’s disillusionment with him can’t be reversed, even if the state gets a few thousand crores,” he says.
Though Nitish has always denied having any prime ministerial ambitions, he seems to be oscillating between Congress and a nascent third front, riding both boats in the hope of switching to the side that offers him the best deal.
On October 30, he triggered speculation about joining non-Congress,
non- BJP parties in a third front, when he shared the dais with leaders of 14 parties at the Talkatora Stadium in New Delhi to participate in a “Convention for People’s Unity Against Communalism”, cobbled together by the Left. “We will have to think and unite against communalism, terrorism and fascism,” he said. Sitting with Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish spoke of the need for JD(U) to work with “non-communal parties”. This is the first decisive shift in his political stance since he started warming up to Congress on the eve of his November 2012 Adhikar Yatra that he had launched to demand special status for Bihar.
“Nitish waited for almost a year for an economic package from the UPA Government before he started veering towards a non-existent third front. This is nothing but a reflection of his insecurity, as he knows he does not have enough eligible candidates for all 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state,” says Bihar BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi.
Nitish’s nuanced preference for a third front over Congress may have been prompted by a belated realisation that the grand old party was just baggage in Bihar. With two MPs and four MLAs, Congress does not have any electoral strength to back Nitish.
According to Nitish’s calculations, the third front may not have much legislative strength in Bihar, but they have neither the baggage of corruption that UPA 2 bears, nor will he have to fight the simmering public anger against runaway inflation.
Besides, joining a third front—if it does take shape—might help him use the services of Mulayam Singh Yadav, another icon of secularism, as a handy counter against a resurgent Lalu Prasad Yadav and his RJD.
To top it all, JD(U) national President Sharad Yadav’s vehement opposition to Congress is a big impediment in a pact with the grand old party. Nitish’s erstwhile “yes” man, he has started flexing his muscle. In July, he dropped Shiva- nand Tiwari from the twin posts of party general secretary and spokesperson, apparently without consulting Nitish. In the run-up to the polls, Nitish cannot afford to ignore Sharad, in a state where voters from his Yadav caste form the single-largest group.
BATTLE FOR SURVIVAL
October’s serial blasts may have taken the sheen off Nitish’s image as an able administrator, but they are the least of his worries. In June, he roped in four independent MLAs and as many from the Congress to achieve a simple majority in the 243-member state Assembly, even though he did not expand his Cabinet fearing a backlash from ministerial aspirants.
His detractors within JD(U) have sensed this as his weakness. At the party’s strategy session that he addressed on October 29, JD(U) Rajya Sabha member Shivanand Tewari praised Narendra Modi, while Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh accused Nit-
ish of being surrounded by bureaucrats, daring the Chief Minister to sack him during the meet. There was no response from the man who, since June, has been the country’s most overburdened chief minister. Nitish now holds 18 portfolios, including roads and construction, finance, health and tourism, in addition to the home and personnel portfolios he already held. “He has taken on an impossible-to-fulfil workload,” says a senior IAS officer.
In August, Nitish allowed two of his ministers, Bheem Singh and Narendra Singh, to continue in his Cabinet, despite their insensitive comments on the killing of five Indian soldiers on the Line of Control with Pakistan. Bheem Singh had said that “soldiers join the Indian Army to be martyred” while Narendra Singh called Pakistan “India’s younger brother”, describing the incident an act of extremists, over whom Pakistan has no control.
At his Gandhi Maidan rally, Narendra Modi called for “such sinners to be punished”. On October 31, Revenue
NITISH MIGHT PREFER TO JOIN THE THIRD FRONT. IT WILL PLEASE SHARAD YADAV AND HELP HIM USE MULAYAM SINGH YADAV IN HIS BATTLE AGAINST LALU.
Minister Ramai Ram once again repeated a demand for his candidature to contest in the Lok Sabha election from Hajipur, now held by JD(U)’S Ramsundar Das. Such open dissent would have been unthinkable even a few months ago.
Worse, Nitish has to reckon with a born-again BJP that has turned the heat on him like never before. With 91 members in the Assembly, BJP is wooing his core vote bank of Extremely Backward Castes ( EBCS) and Mahadalits.
Much to Nitish’s chagrin, Modi is being projected as an EBC leader in Bihar. His old bete noire, RJD, has not just survived Lalu Prasad Yadav’s conviction and arrest in the fodder scam and his dismissal from the Lok Sabha, it has grown at JD(U)’s expense.
Two JD(U) Lok Sabha MPs, Purnamasi Ram and Mangali Lal Mandal, have openly praised Lalu, dropping enough hints of their plan to join RJD, while JD(U) Lok Sabha MP Vidya Sagar Nishad and MLA Chhedi Paswan have met Narendra Modi in August and September respectively, making clear their intentions of quitting JD(U) for BJP.
Shortly after he announced the break with BJP in June this year, Nitish Kumar told his Cabinet colleagues that he had teamed up with the party only to oust Lalu. “When you need to extinguish a big fire, you don’t think about the quality of water you are using to douse it,” he told them. “You use everything that you can to put it out.”
Bihar certainly needs a firefighter, but Nitish may not be the one.
RAJNATH SINGH (RIGHT) WITH NARENDRAMODI, MOMENTS AFTER SEVERALBLASTS RIPPED THROUGH GANDHI MAIDAN IN PATNA
(FROM LEFT) A.B. BARDHAN, NITISH KUMAR, MULAYAM SINGH YADAV, PRAKASH KARATAND SHARAD YADAV SHARE THE STAGE ATARALLYIN DELHI