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Explained: Why Nitish Kumar has fallen back on his demand for special status for Bihar

Among the likely reasons are a new NITI Aayog report that places Bihar low down in ranking of states, and the nature and exigencies of the JD(U)'s alliance with the BJP.

Written by Santosh Singh , Edited by Explained Desk | Patna |
December 14, 2021 3:43:54 pm
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (PTI Photo/File)

After a break, Nitish Kumar has again raised his nearly 15-year-old demand for the status of special category state (SCS) for Bihar. On Monday (December 13), the Chief Minister said that his deputy, Renu Devi, who had earlier described the demand as “meaningless”, had “no detailed information” on Bihar’s claim.

The Deputy Chief Minister, a senior leader from the BJP, which is in a coalition with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), had made her statement on Saturday. Two days later, Nitish insisted, “The demand for the special status to Bihar is totally justified, the state deserves it.”

Addressing reporters at his Janata Darbar, the Chief Minister said: “If someone in the state opposes the special status demand, it is possible that the person does not understand the issue.”

Nitish has been seeking SCS for Bihar since at least 2007. Generally, these demands have become louder and more persistent ahead of elections. What is the reason for him to raise this issue again?

Special category states

In a special category state, the Centre-state funding of centrally-sponsored schemes is split in the ratio of 90:10, much more favourable than the 60:40 or 80:20 splits in other (non-SCS) states.

The Constitution does not provide for any state to receive special treatment compared to others; however, for a range of reasons including historical disadvantage, difficult or hilly terrain, nature of population (low density or a large share of tribals), strategic location along the border, economic or infrastructural backwardness, etc., the Centre has over the decades extended special assistance to some states.

From 1969 onward, a body called the National Development Council (NDC) — which used to be a part of the now defunct Planning Commission of India — recommended SCS status for 11 states: eight from the Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand.

After the government accepted the recommendations of the Fourteenth Finance Commission in 2015, however, the concept of SCS effectively disappeared. The NITI Aayog, which has replaced the Planning Commission, has no power to allocate funds — and therefore, the discretion that the ruling party at the Centre had to dole out special favours to states through the Plan panel, no longer exists.

States such as Bihar, Odisha, and Jharkhand have, however, persisted with the demand. Andhra Pradesh too has claimed SCS as fulfillment of the promise that it says was made by the previous UPA government when the state was bifurcated in 2014.

Latest NITI Aayog report

The Chief Minister seems perturbed by the latest report of the NITI Aayog that puts Bihar among the bottom states in terms of growth rate and human development indices. On Monday, he said the government was doing its best with the limited resources at the disposal of the state.

Bihar’s annual per capita income of Rs 50,735 lags the national figure of Rs 1,34,432 by a significant distance. According to the report, 51.91 per cent of the state’s population — the highest in the country — lives below the poverty line. Bihar is also doing badly in terms of school dropouts, child malnourishment, maternal health, and infant mortality.

Leader of Opposition Tejashwi Prasad Yadav has targeted the Bihar government, saying Nitish’s ‘good governance’ claim was a “misnomer”. While Nitish has not reacted to Tejashwi, second-rung JD(U) leaders have struggled to defend the government on the NITI Aayog report. With the opposition repeatedly mocking the so-called “double-engine” government in the state, the BJP has not rushed to the government’s defence, nor has Nitish found it easy to blame the Centre for the situation in the state.

Nitish’s tussle with the BJP

To seek to put the BJP under pressure from time to time has been an old strategy of the Chief Minister’s. Despite being the senior partner in the NDA in Bihar, the BJP has not so far shown signs of asserting its authority in the alliance. Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi, who replaced Sushil Kumar Modi as Nitish’s deputies in November 2020, have not made any demands, and the Chief Minister has not conceded any extra political space to BJP in his government.

Nitish knows that the BJP cannot as yet afford to go it alone in Bihar, and that the saffron party needs him as much as he needs them. He also knows that SCS is a demand that the Centre will never concede, because it will open the floodgates of claims by states. However, it remains a potent political rallying point that continues to allow the firing of loud blanks — and Nitish is quick to use this arsenal when he does not have other shots to fire.

Also, at this moment, Nitish has an eye on the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. The JD(U) wants to contest at least a dozen seats, and Nitish would like to take whatever advantage he can of a BJP that has been humiliated by the protesting farmers. If special category status cannot be obtained, the JD(U) would be hoping for at least some special attention from its political partner.

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