Nitish II Part-III: Bihar Chief Minister may have a message but lacks the medium

All 18 departments are being looked after by the chief minister.

Written by Vandita Mishra | Patna | Published: December 7, 2013 3:52 am

After the JD(U)-BJP separation in June and the exit of 11 BJP ministers from the Nitish Kumar ministry,the number of ministerial vacancies in Patna rose to 18. All 18 departments are being looked after by the chief minister. “When so many departments are with the CM,monitoring and review slow down,governance is a casualty”,says Sushil Kumar Modi,deputy chief minister in the erstwhile alliance government in Bihar.

Talk to bureaucrats in Patna,however,and they claim the government is more agile. “The truth is,even when they were ostensibly in charge,they (the BJP ministers) wouldn’t know what was happening in their own departments. Projects were planned,initiated and monitored directly by the CM”,says a senior JD(U) minister. The suggestion is explicit: The Bihar government is a one-man show. Ministers,not just of the BJP but also of the JD(U),are firmly in the chief minister’s shadow.

The other side of the “one-man show” in Patna is that often,and particularly ever since Nitish Kumar walked out of the NDA,it seems that the Nitish message misses a political machine.

“People don’t understand why an alliance that was working so well broke up,especially because there is a surge for Modi. Unlike Lalu,who has a blunt way,Nitish’s style is suggestive. He signals,doesn’t take names. He hasn’t been able to convey his message to ground level. People are confused and angry. They hold Nitish responsible”,says Sushil Kumar Modi.

Nitish’s erstwhile deputy may have a point to prove now,but it is true that the political communication challenge for Nitish has just become more daunting — on at least three fronts.

* After the JD(U)-BJP split,many in Patna draw attention to the fact that for the first time since Independence,the state chief secretary and DGP belong to the same caste. It is not incidental that both are Bhumihars,they say. The insinuation is: with the BJP no longer an ally of the JD(U),Nitish is forced to placate and pamper upper castes — at cost to the interests of backward castes.

* Vijay Kumar Chaudhary,former JD(U) president and currently minister,points out that the JD(U)’s voters are so poor and disadvantaged that even after the split from the BJP,“they could still tell you that they voted for Nitish on the ‘kamal chhaap’ (BJP’s lotus symbol). We have to take cognisance of that”.

* Senior RJD leader Abdul Bari Siddiqui asks: “Why did Nitish remain in the BJP’s lap for 17 years? I have said in the Vidhan Sabha and it has resonated in the community,that we have to fight two BJPs — Modi’s party,and Advani’s JD(U).” Even now,he suggests,the JD(U) has kept its options open for a post-poll alliance with an Advani-led NDA. The question,now that Nitish has made a dramatic decision,unsettled equations and energised his opponents,is: does he have the party machinery to take his story to the people and counter his opponents’?

Shivanand Tiwari,the JD(U) senior who made a splash at the party’s October convention in Rajgir by hitting out at the apolitical coterie that surrounds Nitish and its complacence in the face of the Modi challenge,points to an underlying absence. There is little or no emphasis on party-building in the JD(U),he says.

Tiwari gives an instance. “With reservations for women and EBCs in panchayats in place,we thought there should be a district level conference,to enable the party to pick up leaders from these groups. This could have helped infuse new blood in the party by taking advantage of the opportunities opened up by government’s policy and programme. But nothing was done.” The chief minister is a “solo player”,rues Tiwari,who has been active in organisational work since the 1960s.

The lack of an organised and motivated party machine is especially a problem for a party that is a relative newcomer compared to its rivals,and which does not have a numerically significant vote bank to call its own,like the Yadavs for the RJD,or even the upper castes for the BJP. The coalition of the lower backwards,the EBCs and Mahadalits,that Nitish Kumar has tried to put together is made up of scattered and numerically small caste groups that lack an articulate leadership or a common agenda. These groups are more marginalised and less assertive than other backward castes. They are also most vulnerable to corruption in the lower bureaucracy and upper caste dominance.

In the case of the Muslims,where Modi’s candidature for PM has stoked anxieties and renewed fears,Niish needs the party machine to carry home the point he has sought to make against Modi in Patna and Delhi. This is especially so given that the JD(U) lacks Muslim leaders to match RJD’s Siddiqui or M.A.A. Fatmi,or even its controversial but powerful Taslimuddin- Shahabuddin duo.

On the first day of the JD(U)’s party convention at Rajgir,a day after Modi’s rally in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan,speakers on the podium thundered against Modi’s slights to Nitish. “His is an act of risk taking. minorities ki pehredari ka kaam kiya hai (he has acted to safeguard the state’s minorities)”,said MP Monazir Hasan. “We need to go to them and tell them that you (Nitish) have shown your willingness to sacrifice power for their sake”,he said.

The party is mindful of the challenge. After the alliance split in June,six teams,consisting of 15-16 leaders each,were sent to the state’s 243 constituencies to explain the break-up to party workers. Next,rallies will be held at the commissionary level,to galvanise party workers. “We are going to start a campaign for the formation of booth level committees — a minimum of 15-20 party workers will be identified for every both”,says former party president Chaudhary.

On the ground,however,speculation is rife about how the JD(U) will fare without BJP support. Stories abound of how when the alliance fought elections together in the past,BJP booth committees far outnumbered the JD(U)’s,and of JD(U) committees with more officebearers than workers.

The JD(U) appears defiant or in denial,but one thing is clear: by breaking the NDA alliance,Nitish Kumar may have unleashed a political communication challenge his party looks as yet ill equipped to meet.

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