“Whenever in doubt, embark on a yatra”. This has apparently been the defining feature of every political yatra Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has undertaken since 2005, when he took over the reins of power in Bihar.
Nitish’s ongoing “Samaj Sudhar Abhiyan” (social reform campaign) yatra is his 12th yatra as the Bihar CM. In the run-up to the October 2005 Assembly polls, he had embarked on “Nyay” yatra with promise of “development with justice” that later became his government’s tagline.
The avowed objective of the JD(U) supremo’s current statewide yatra is to create public awareness against alcoholism, dowry and child marriage.
Like previous yatras, the CM kicked off the current one from East Champaran. He will complete its first leg on January 15, covering 12 districts, and will travel to Patna, Gaya, Bhagalpur, Begusarai and Purnia.
But the key question is, why Nitish needed to embark on yet another political yatra, at a time when the state Assembly and the Lok Sabha elections are far away? After all, 7 of his 11 previous political yatras had been launched close to the Lok Sabha or the Assembly polls.
For example, Nitish undertook his “Vikas” yatra in February 2009, three months before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Similarly, he had undertaken “Vishwas” yatra in April 2010, six months before the 2010 Assembly polls.
There seem to be several reasons behind the CM’s latest political tour. Of late, he has been under intense political pressure to justify the state’s liquor prohibition law enforced since April 2016.
Two hooch tragedies in Gopalganj and West Champaran last month shook his government, leading to the Opposition and media asking tough questions on the very need for such a law that cannot be properly implemented. Fourteen people died after consuming spurious country liquor in Gopalganj, and 16 people died after consuming illicit liquor in neighbouring West Champaran district.
The CM, who reached Gopalganj Friday in the course of his current yatra, told a public meeting: “It was Gopalganj where the first liquor conviction came when 9 people were sentenced to death and 5 people were given life sentence recently in 2016 hooch case (in which 18 people had died). One should take lesson from it.”
RJD chief Lalu Prasad has demanded scrapping of the liquor law, saying the state had been suffering a loss of about Rs 6,000 crore that excise tax on liquor could have brought to the cash-starved state.
The JD(U)’s senior alliance partner, the BJP, has not officially demanded scrapping of the liquor law, but there have been murmurs from the second-rung BJP leaders about liquor traders and distributors cocking a snook at the law with over-burdened state police being able to do little to curb smuggling and manufacturing of liquor in Bihar.
The JD(U) has also been under attack, for the first time, from the BJP over Nitish’s much-touted “good goverance or sushashan” plank, with
Union minister and BJP MP Giriraj Singh saying the state government failed to meet its target in the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana. Pataliputra BJP MP Ram Kripal Yadav also made similar charges against the Nitish Kumar government during the just-concluded session of Parliament.
The point is not lost on anyone that the JD(U) has been helming the Bihar government despite being the third largest party (45 seats) behind the ally BJP (74 seats) and the RJD (75 seats) in the 243-member state Assembly.
A seasoned leader, Nitish has mastered the art of political manoeuvrings. The BJP has still not projected its leader in Bihar, and its two Deputy CMs, Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi, barely pose any challenge to Nitish’s leadership. Such a situation is conducive for Nitish to prolong his political supremacy. So, at this juncture, he has hit the ground, at the expense of public exchequer, to feel the pulse of the people, guage his popularity, and activate his cadre at the grassroots level.
Launching his “Samaj Sudhar” yatra in East Champaran on 22 December, Nitish said, “I will not attend any wedding ceremony in which I don’t get a written undertaking stating that no dowry was taken or given”.
He has also been exhorting state women to share information on those consuming alcohol, liquor manufacturers, and traders. By doing so, he is trying to reach out to 10 lakh women Self Help Groups (SHGs) – a vast constituency of women.
Seeking to contest more than a dozen seats in the upcoming UP Assembly polls, the JD(U) also seems to be sending out a signal to the BJP that it could seek Nitish’s help in campaigning in some Purvanchal seats there with sizeable population of the OBC Patel community, which is akin to Kurmi, the caste the Bihar CM belongs to.
Taking a swipe at Nitish’s current political tour, Leader of Opposition in the Bihar Assembly, Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, said: “Bihar needs systemic reforms first. Once system is reformed, social reforms will automatically follow…Why waste public money over yatras?”