Member of the Congress’s election management and coordination committee for Bihar and among the party’s star campaigners for the polls, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar speaks to the Indian Express about the issues in these elections and the Congress’s strategy in the state.
How different is this election from previous polls in the state?
It is a very important election from the Congress’s point of view. It is an important election for all political parties. It is a landmark election for the people of Bihar. The election is being organised in the midst of a pandemic. For the Congress the polls are important because, all said and done, we stand for a certain ideology. And that ideology is central to the country, which is multi-religious, which is suffering from the ills and the evils of the caste system, which is multi-ethnic… There are so many languages. For keeping the country together, you should have religious tolerance, you should be secular. I would go a step ahead and say you should have respect for each other’s religion, not just tolerance. This is what Congress stands for. It is not a question of power, after all you come to power to implement your ideology. So, the Congress wants power in Bihar to implement all of this.
In the Lok Sabha elections last year, the NDA won 39 out of the 40 seats in Bihar. The Congress won one seat while the RJD was wiped out. How difficult is this election for the Congress and the Grand Alliance?
Every election is unpredictable. Every election is difficult… Today, the electorate is very well-informed, there is highly advanced and sophisticated technology around… Everything is available to the voter. You just can’t take them for granted.
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But is there an anti-incumbency wave?
Terrible, terrible (anti-incumbency wave). You (the Nitish Kumar government) have been in power for a very long time. You have come to power making so many promises. It is not humanly possible to fulfil those promises… On top of that there is the mishandling of floods. The way Patna was flooded, it was not just a natural calamity, it was a failure. It was a result of not paying attention for many years on the drainage system, the water supply system. And then the trouble that the migrant workers from Bihar have suffered. The maximum number of people who go as labourers to other parts of the country are from Bihar. Why don’t they have employment in their own state? Why has it not been addressed?
But the Opposition is saying that migration is not a new issue. Nitish Kumar has been in power for 15 years, but what were the governments before him doing?
Anybody who is in power, who comes to power, can say this issue has not come up now, that this is a far older issue. So, I’m not going to address it. Things do accumulate, there are certain things which are addressed, there are certain things which are half-addressed, and there are certain things which cannot be addressed or maybe they’ve cropped up later. You can overlook some things, but for certain things you just cannot forgive or pardon that person because he has not paid any attention to the migrant labourers’ issue. It was a heartless and cruel attitude towards those people. Handling of the coronavirus crisis… You cannot pardon a person who is in power (for these things).
Can the decision to project Tejashwi Yadav as the CM face of the alliance be counter-productive, given the poor perception of 15 years of the Lalu Prasad government?
Don’t ask me to comment on a young man and his future. I don’t think that would be proper. I wish all young men who are in politics to have bright futures.
But my question is more from an election strategy point of view…
Everything becomes about numbers and caste. I feel very ashamed. We are living in the 21st century. Everybody starts talking of caste (during elections). If people stop talking of caste, caste will become irrelevant. Then 15 years of that rule, 15 years of this rule… Let’s stop talking of all these very, very highly mundane things. Let’s talk of elimination of poverty, how to eliminate the caste system.
The Opposition alliance suffered a setback even before the campaigning began with Jitan Ram Manjhi, Upendra Kushwaha and VIP’s Mukesh Sahni leaving the alliance. The Congress wanted a more broad-based alliance. What went wrong?
We are in politics you see. There is no alliance or no commitment for life. When the election time comes, wherever they feel they’re comfortable they go.
Is it a setback?
I don’t take anything as a setback. The Congress stands on a very firm footing of its ideology. And the Congress shall stand by it. The rest is immaterial.
Is the Bihar election a referendum on the Modi government given that issues such as condition of migrant workers, unemployment, job losses, slump in the economy are dominating the narrative this time?
Referendum in a state election…I don’t know. I mean, referendum on a prime minister and his cabinet is more in the national general election. But yes, certain shadows certainly would be cast. People would be talking of Hathras, migrant labour would be very relevant, GDP it almost in minus… All that is there, of course… I don’t think… Referendum is a very big word.
Then what will be the issues in the polls?
In an MLA election, the issues become drainage, roads, bridges, drinking water, electricity, pucca houses, schools for children… In the wake of the pandemic have you been able to give online education, employment… Things which touch a person’s life. Why there are no good educational institutions in the state… These things which touch people’s lives. Women’s security…
So the results will not be a reflection on the Modi government?
I’m not saying it so categorically… The BJP will ask for votes in the name of Modi. That I am sure. That they will do. They will not ask for votes in the name of Nitish Kumar or Sushil Modi or anyone else; straight in the name of Modi. So how Modi has performed will certainly be talked about, yes.
The Congress is fighting in 70 seats but most Congress leaders don’t know which are those 70 seats. Why his secrecy?
We have announced the names of 21 candidates. When you are in an alliance…such situations do arise. There is nothing to get so worried about.