The BJP leader believes Covid-19 fear is abating and won’t impact voting, admits the “vacuum” left after Arun Jaitley’s demise, and denies charges that Bihar mishandled the migrant situation post-lockdown. The session was moderated by National Opinion Editor Vandita Mishra and Assistant Editor Santosh Singh
SANTOSH SINGH: What are the challenges of participating in an election in the middle of a pandemic
The Election Commission has issued guidelines which means elections will be held in Bihar. Nobody knows how long this pandemic will continue. How long can you delay the elections? I have read that in 34 countries elections have been held during the pandemic, and the US is also going to have elections in November. The BJP and JD(U) have requested the EC that the polls in Bihar should be a one-day affair. Earlier, elections in the state were held in five-six phases… This will be the first election in the country during the pandemic, so it will be challenging. But there is no alternative.
As far as the political situation in the state is concerned, there is a triangle in Bihar which includes the BJP, JD(U) and RJD. Now if two arms of a triangle come together, they defeat the third arm. When the BJP and the JD(U) came together, they defeated the RJD, and when the JD(U) and the RJD combined, they defeated the BJP. This time, the BJP and the JD(U) are together.
Secondly, there is a big difference in the vote share between the UPA and the NDA in the state. In the 2010 Assembly polls, in which the BJP and JD(U) were together, and the RJD and the LJP were together, there was a vote share difference of 14 per cent. We got 39.07% and the UPA got 25.58%. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when Narendra Modi was not there, there was no NDA government at the Centre, the vote share difference stood at 13%. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when the BJP, JD(U) and the LJP came together, there was a vote share difference of 23 per cent.
Now, Nitish Kumar has left the RJD and joined hands with the BJP. So who has been weakened? Nitish Kumar was a very strong component of the UPA, winning 71 seats. Now he is with the NDA, and the NDA has become much, much stronger in Bihar. We are going into these elections with the achievements of the Central government as well as the state government; Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister and Nitish Kumar as the CM candidate… So we have two faces, Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. We are fighting the elections under the leadership of Nitish Kumar and the achievements of the Central and state government. There is no fight over credit now. The NDA’s social base in Bihar is very big, much, much bigger than the M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) combination of Lalu Prasad.
SANTOSH SINGH: Is there a concern that there could be less voting in urban areas, where people are more aware about the pandemic?
Only 11% of Bihar’s population is urban. Elections are still two months away and the panic around the pandemic is reducing. All arrangements are in place. In rural areas there was not much panic earlier either. As we approach the elections, I expect people’s confidence to grow. There might be a minor impact in urban areas… But I personally feel that by the time elections are held in the last week of October or first week of November, the caseload will have reduced and there will be better arrangements too.
VANDITA MISHRA: Your relationship with Arun Jaitley went back to the JP movement. It’s been a year since he passed away. Has the vacuum that he left behind been filled?
The vacuum that Arun Jaitley has left behind can never be filled. But what is also true is that there is never a vacuum in politics. Even when the NDA alliance broke in Bihar, Arun Jaitley had very good relations with Nitish Kumar. Arun Jaitley gave a direction to political issues, set the narrative, shaped the stand of the party… We miss that. Earlier, whenever we faced a crisis, Arun Jaitley would write an article, a blog, or hold a press conference, he would give the party worker a direction. We miss that clarity. The Prime Minister also said that he misses him. Mr Jaitley had good relations with the media, politicians, corporates. He was a good lawyer, spoke well, wrote well, for one person to have all these qualities is rare. I don’t see such a personality in the BJP, the NDA or in the entire field of politics now. Yet, a vacuum doesn’t always stay that way, someone will soon emerge. But there is a void.
VANDITA MISHRA: The issue of migrant workers found a new visibility in the pandemic. How does Bihar plan to address issues of migrant workers in terms of policy and politics?
The work done for the migrants who returned to Bihar, both by the Central and the state governments, has ensured that they are much happier than what is being projected in the media. More than 21 lakh people have returned to Bihar through the free trains that were run. Barring a few incidents, they all returned comfortably. Once they were home, they forgot all their frustrations, and they only praised Narendra Modi. Unlike what was shown in the media, a very small percentage of people returned on foot — 99% people returned on trains. Also, Bihar had the best quarantine centres for migrant labourers. We spent close to Rs 5,000 per labourer. We drew on our experience of running flood relief camps.
But yes, there is a big population of migrant labourers. We have made efforts to create jobs for them. Migration has become a culture in Bihar like people from Punjab go to the UK and Canada, people from Kerala and Telangana go out. If people want to go away from home to earn more money, you cannot stop them… If there were jobs in Bihar why would people go out? One cannot create jobs overnight. Also, the density of population in Bihar is very high, the land holdings are fragmented… Before the division of Bihar, the investment was usually in the southern parts of the state, which is now Jharkhand. The northern part was considered good for agriculture. So that is why big industries cannot come here, but we are trying to get smaller ones so that people get jobs here too. But it is a challenge and it is not easy to overcome it.
DIPANKAR GHOSE: When the first phase of the lockdown was announced in March, Nitish Kumar said people should not come back to Bihar because they would bring the disease with them. Uttar Pradesh arranged for buses. Do you think you could have handled the situation better in the early days of the pandemic?
Was it possible to bring back the migrants in buses? They were not in eastern UP. They were in Rajasthan, Mumbai, Kerala, Gujarat. How many people can be accommodated in a bus? About 20-25. As soon as the trains were announced, people returned.
Secondly, there was a Central government guideline then that barred inter-state movement. Should we have defied it? To bring back students from Kota in buses it would take 48 hours.
Nobody said that the students would bring Covid-19 with them. All Nitish Kumar said was that there is an MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) guideline and we are following it. Later, people returned on trains. Yes, in the initial days, the quarantine centres in the villages were not functioning well. Then we set up centres at Block headquarters and they were run very well. They were the best in the country. About Rs 28,000 crore was spent by the Central and state government together on food grains and cash on people of Bihar. There isn’t one poor family in Bihar in whose account Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 was not transferred, apart from the food grains.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Do you think the filing of FIR in the Sushant Singh Rajput case in Bihar and the subsequent decision for a CBI inquiry in the case has politicised the matter? Will it be an issue in the Bihar elections? And, is the appointment of Devendra Fadnavis as the BJP’s election in charge of Bihar an attempt to drag the BJP’s politics in Maharashtra into the Bihar elections?
Firstly, the Supreme Court took a stand and now the entire case has been transferred to the CBI. The SC has not said that it was incorrect to file the FIR in Bihar. So our stand has been vindicated by the court. There is no question of politicising Sushant Singh’s death. Before his death I did not know he was from Bihar. Then I found out that one of his cousins is also part of the Bihar BJP. So over two months after his death, people’s sentiments grew, both in Bihar and the country. There was also a sense that the Maharashtra government wants to brush things under the carpet… I don’t think it will be an issue in the elections. Devendra Fadnavis is a young, dynamic leader and so he has been given responsibility for Bihar.
VANDITA MISHRA: You have been tweeting a lot. Is this in preparation for a digital election, or do you think social media is the place for politics now?
I feel digital platforms have a very limited role in election campaigns. Door-to-door campaigns, meetings are the best methods. The digital space is one of the platforms. Only a small percentage of people know about Twitter in Bihar. Yes, the younger generation uses Facebook a lot. In the 2014 election campaign too, Narendra Modi had done virtual rallies. The Zoom calls, the video and audio conferences have played a crucial role in recent times to help us communicate with our workers. The digital platform will play a big role in these elections in terms of communication…. But you still have to meet and talk to people.
I was surprised by the RJD’s demand that virtual rallies should not be allowed in these elections. In fact, in the coming days, a system for online voting should be developed so that people do not have to go to booths… A rally with helicopter costs Rs 50 lakh. In a virtual rally, you can address many more people in only Rs 1 lakh. They (the RJD) are not prepared to fight the polls, they know they will lose.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: The BJP’s vote share has decreased in Bihar if we look at the past elections, both Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha. Has the party’s appeal reduced in Bihar?
The BJP-JD(U) alliance has fought five Lok Sabha, and total nine elections together. We transfer votes to each other. Every time we fight elections together, we win most of the times. In fact, we are stronger than before… We have a committee for every booth. Our organisation network is very strong. But yes, it is the time for alliances. In 2015, we fought alone and couldn’t win. The JD(U) fought alone in 2014 but couldn’t win… Also, I knew that Nitish Kumar could not work with Lalu for long. His way of working, his mindset, the RJD does not fit in to it. The BJP-JD(U) is a natural alliance. The people of Bihar also feel this.
SANTOSH SINGH: In the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and the JD(U) fought on equal number of seats. Will it be the same in these elections too or will the JD(U) be the senior partner?
I will not comment on this. The seat-sharing decisions are taken at the central level. Talks are underway. All I will say is that the BJP, JD(U) and LJP will stay together, fight the elections together, and will form the next government in Bihar together.
LIZ MATHEW: There has been some criticism of Nitish Kumar’s leadership and his style of functioning within the BJP. You have been supporting Nitish Kumar, and as a result you have also faced some criticism in the party. Do you think the BJP has no other option but to accept Nitish Kumar’s leadership?
See, Nitish Kumar is not a selected Chief Minister, he is an elected Chief Minister. He is not just a leader of the JD(U). People vote (for our alliance) because Nitish Kumar is the chief ministerial candidate. There is no confusion in the BJP about this. In 2019, when the alliance with the JD(U) was formalised, we knew Nitish Kumar would be the chief ministerial candidate. And, where is the question of changing the CM candidate after winning the 2020 (Assembly) elections? Earlier too, we have fought elections together with Nitish Kumar as candidate. The party (the BJP) is unanimous on this.
The parliamentary board decides on alliances, not Sushil Modi. After the alliance broke in 2012, for three years, as leader of opposition in the Assembly, I took on the state government. So I will work with honesty on whichever side I am on. If the BJP decides to break the alliance, I will not take a minute to break away (from my role). But we (Nitish and I) have worked together in the JP movement, in student union elections, it is a long association.
Alliances are not decided by Sushil Modi. They are decided by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and J P Nadda. They have taken a decision and it is pragmatic politics — we will win the elections and form government only by allying with Nitish Kumar. There is no confusion about it.
AANCHAL MAGAZINE: State budgets have been severely strained in the pandemic. How have you been managing the situation?
The situation of most states is quite poor. So far we have been giving salaries, wages and pensions. There have been no cuts. At least half-a-dozen states have cut salaries. We have assured our employees that their salaries will not stop.
Secondly, 76% of Bihar’s revenue comes from the Centre. Last year, when there was no pandemic or slowdown, we received Rs 25,000 crore less under the state’s share in Central taxes than what was projected… We had said earlier too that the fiscal deficit limit be increased from 3-4 per cent to 5 per cent without any condition so that all states can raise loans…. States should be allowed to borrow till 5 per cent of the deficit.
Regarding GST compensation, there is a big issue. The states can’t borrow, only the Centre can. We don’t have the capacity to borrow… Though by law the Central government is not bound to pay the compensation cess to the states, it is their moral responsibility to compensate the states. If the Centre does not help states now, they will face big difficulties.
SMITA NAIR: Do you think the Centre should have taken into confidence the chief ministers of all states before the lockdown was implemented?
Often the media has said that migrant labourers should have been sent to their states before announcing the lockdown. When PM Modi announced the lockdown on March 24, it took one month to transfer all migrants… It would have been impractical to consult all CMs before announcing the lockdown… It was a timely decision.
LALMANI VERMA: A new generation of politicians such as the LJP’s Chirag Paswan and the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav are in the poll fray in Bihar now. Has it affected your party’s appeal?
In comparison to Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi is younger. But whom did people vote for? Nobody votes for anyone because they are young. It is about who can deliver, the candidate and the party’s credibility.
AMITABH SINHA: Compared to states with the same number of Covid-19 cases, the death rate in Bihar is low. What could be the reason for that?
I am not an expert, but I think people of Bihar have strong immune systems and are hardworking… I spoke to a hundred infected people. About 80-85% of them had mild to high fever, sore throat, and experienced a loss of smell and taste. In five to seven days, most of them got well. Hardly 10 to 15 people required oxygen support and two to three needed ventilator support. This is the general phenomenon.
LEENA MISRA: Alpesh Thakor, who was earlier in the Congress, led the attack on migrant workers following an incident of rape in Gujarat. At the time, you said you will not let him step in to Bihar. Now, he is with the BJP. Did you protest his induction?
In politics, people keep changing with time… Alpesh Thakor is insignificant as far as Bihar is concerned.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: How do you plan to conduct the NEET exams at a time when Bihar is also battling floods?
Postponing the exam is not a solution. Sixteen districts of the state have been affected by floods. None of the district headquarters, where the exam centres are located, has been affected. I have also read that more than 90 per cent of the students have taken their admit cards.
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