The Supreme Court order setting aside the bail granted by the Patna High Court to RJD strongman Mohammad Shahabuddin is a stinging rebuke to the Nitish Kumar government. It is true that the Bihar government had also moved the apex court against the bail to Shahabuddin. But it was a case of too weak-kneed, too late. By then, the government’s credibility on the matter had already been seriously and conspicuously eroded. The SC bench underlined the point, asking the government’s counsel sternly: “Were you in slumber till he got bail?” The court reprimanded the Bihar government for the lacklustre performance of the prosecution, for the delay in conduct of trial of the 2014 Rajiv Roshan murder case, and for allowing the don to secure bail in several other criminal cases against him. It commented acerbically on the “peculiarity” of the case, wondered “at whose instance” this was so and “who is behind this”, and directed the government to ensure a speedy trial now.
The Shahabuddin episode confirms the worst suspicions about Nitish’s third innings so far. It signals a backsliding on its greatest achievement in the previous two terms — the restoring of the authority of the state and the consequent laying low of those like Siwan’s “Saheb” who had virtually set up a parallel government in his district. Shahabuddin’s arrest in 2005 and the subsequent dismantling of his reign of terror in Siwan had become a powerful badge and symbol of the many successes of the Nitish raj in rebuilding a state that was seen, before he took over, to be absent or abdicating. In this context, Nitish’s third term was being watched warily because of his alliance with Lalu Prasad, the man still credited in Bihar with overturning uppercaste dominance in a state of fierce inequalities but also for being singularly unable to translate his own historic successes into a grammar of governance. It was under Lalu that the state receded from its essential functions and Shahabuddin flourished in Siwan. With Lalu the larger partner in the Mahagathbandhan that came to power in 2015, it was feared, therefore, that Nitish might not be able to continue with “sushasan” or good governance that, in the Nitish promise, came twinned with “samajik nyaya” or social justice.
The Nitish government’s visible lack of resolve in the Shahabuddin case will return to haunt his government. The don’s taunts will ring in its ears — he called Nitish a “chief minister of circumstances” upon his release on bail, and threated that his supporters would “teach a lesson in the next polls” as he was ordered back to jail. But what is far worse, the Bihar government will be singed by the disbelief of those who accuse it of having wilted under coalition compulsions, or its own lack of conviction, in the matter of the don.