In an interview to The Indian Express, Bihar Water Resource Minister Sanjay Kumar Jha talks about how CM Nitish Kumar, following the lockdown announcement, helped avert a bigger economic crisis in Bihar, and stresses that the skill mapping programme of the JD(U) government will create employment opportunities
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been at the helm for fifteen years now. The opposition says there is anti-incumbency. Do you see it?
I do not think so. (JD(U) chief and Bihar CM) Nitish Kumar has changed the narrative of Bihar politics… He raised expectation. Fifteen years is a long time. Some people may think that more work could have been done but what we are seeing on the field is different. If they think more should be done, they also believe that only Kumar can do it
The JD(U) leaders, including the CM, often compare Bihar with what it was during (RJD chief) Lalu Prasad’s regime (1990-2005). Isn’t this an admission that the last five years haven’t been good enough?
We say this because this was not a field where you could come and start batting. This was a hole. What had they (then RJD government) left in the state? Rampant corruption, a finished (failed) bureaucracy. The CPWD (Central Public Works Department), which makes buildings in Delhi, used to come here and build roads. No contractor would come, no businessman was left. Every day there was kidnapping. You have to see from where Kumar started. Biharis used to be a laughing stock. That was the Bihar Kumar inherited. In a caste-based society like the one in Bihar, if he did not have dedication and commitment, we would not be able to build the Bihari pride.
But hasn’t Kumar created sub-castes and a loyal vote base for himself?
He is the first CM in the country to give 50 per cent reservation to women in panchayats. Three elections have happened. Talk to the women mukhiyas and the zila parishads. There is now a women force in politics. Nobody had thought what does a woman in Bihar think about politics. He created that narrative. That is what Kumar is.
In the last few months, the country and Bihar has witnessed difficult times. Migrants returned home, there is economic distress and the state also witnessed flood. Initially, Kumar had said that migrants should not return. Was there anger against the government’s stand?
He never said, ‘Don’t come back.’ He only said that the Centre has made guidelines that no movement should take place… When the pandemic hit, people thought Bihar would be worst affected. They thought the migrants would return and spread the virus in their villages, and the state will be affected. That narrative is not spoken of anymore. The recovery rate in Bihar is 94 per cent. Testing is among the highest. The people broke the chain by staying in quarantine centres.
But what about the economic distress?
Abhijit Banerjee (Nobel laureate for economics) said if direct cash was transferred to people, and if they spent that money, the economy will start moving. Kumar transferred Rs 2,000 crore into people’s bank accounts in different forms. Old age pension of three months was paid in advance, Rs 1,000 was given to each migrant and money was allotted for scholarships for girls. I am not saying that the problem was solved. But he was aware that only when he gives the money, the economy will start moving. Bihar did this in the first few months. Yes, there is economic distress but the entire country is facing it.
You are in alliance with the BJP, and it was the Prime Minister who suddenly announced the lockdown. Will that hurt your alliance?
That is not an issue in the election. Migrants returned and Rs 5,300 was spent on every one who came back and stayed in quarantine centres.
So, has the anger successfully subsided?
Yes, the anger has subsided. We never had conducted skill mapping before. So, we now have data of all the people who stayed in quarantine centres. In places like Bettiah (in Champaran district), Supaul, Purnea, Darbhanga, people are making masks with Mithila paintings and selling them on Amazon and Flipkart… I have been told that in Bettiah, people (who have returned) from Surat and Jaipur have joined the textile work. They told me they didn’t want to go back. The local administration helped and (factory) owners now have put up machines. What I am saying is that they are now utilising their skills here too.
A lot of migrants, who were facing economic difficulties, have now returned from where they came. If their earnings fell, will they still vote for the government?
Economic distress is a pan-India problem. I will not say that it does not have an impact. But largely, the handling of Covid-19 in Bihar, if analysed, was done well. About 22 lakh migrants were given Rs 1,000 each. People trust that when the CM talks about skilling, it will happen. In Delhi, I have visited places like Sangam Vihar and Badarpur. Even there, the issue is of drinking water and roads. But can the opposition here in Bihar fight the elections on rasta (roads), bijli (electricity), paani (drinking water)? These are the key issues in India. We have worked on these.
Who is your opposition in this election? The LJP is fighting the polls on its own. The BJP is seen propping them up in some quarters to push the JD(U) down. On the ground, is it a problem that party cadres may not be working together?
Barring a few years, the BJP-JD(U) alliance has been there since 1996. The cadre, leaders and workers know each other very well. Whether it the Prime Minister, or Amit Shah (Union Home Minister), or the BJP party president (J P Nadda), they have all said that Nitish Kumar will lead the election campaign. Seat distribution is already completed and VIP (Vikassheel Insaan Party) and HAM (Hindustani Awam Morcha, led by former Bihar CM Jitan Ram Manjhi) are our allies. The people of Bihar will give a decisive mandate… The opposition is not serious.
What about (RJD leader) Tejashwi Yadav?
He was not there during the floods or when there was an illness (acute encephalitis syndrome outbreak in 2019) in Muzaffarpur. When the state faces major issues, he is never there. That one of the brothers (Tej Pratap Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s eldest son) has had to change constituency shows that even their core vote is shifting.
Is the LJP’s action bothering the JD(U)? Which way is the Paswan votes going?
I don’t want to talk about caste. But I think people in Bihar vote one way. Even in 2010 (Assembly polls), we (the JD(U) and BJP) fought the election together and won 206 seats out of 243. That result is a matter of record.
So you think that the NDA’s lead in this election is so extensive that it shadows the anti-incumbency factor and economic distress faced by the state?
CM Kumar has made people’s expectations skyrocket, which in a way is very good. He promised 7 Nischay in 2015. He promised to electrify every household. Has it happened or not? He promised piped water to every household. While 83 per cent (of the work) has been completed, the rest got delayed due to Covid-19. Another month and that will happen too. If Kumar has delivered whatever he has promised, people will be able to see it. I can say that people’s trust in Nitish Kumar is intact.