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The party’s not over yet for Nitish Kumar but the Bihar Chief Minister has lost some ground in his second term. Issues like power shortages and irregularities in the construction of roads and public distribution system have dented his image
Two years ago, the people of Bihar had given an unprecedented mandate to Nitish Kumar. He was elected for a second five-year term as chief minister after the Janata Dal (United) and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, won almost 90 per cent of the seats in the elections to the state legislative assembly. Kumar’s administrative skills were praised by all. Today, the situation is slightly different, though he is still seen as a strong candidate for the prime minister’s post if the National Democratic Alliance comes to power.
Protests against Kumar and his government have become a regular affair. During his election campaign in 2010, Kumar had promised round-the-clock power, better roads, better law & order, better health services, effective public distribution of ration, rapid industrialisation, more jobs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and a transparent government. Several of these promises remain promises. Power shortage is fetching Kumar’s government a bad name. The protests for better power supply became so loud that Kumar was forced to say that he will not ask for vote in the 2015 assembly elections if the power situation does not improve. NREGS has failed to have any significant impact on poverty in Bihar. The non-availability of doctors and drugs in government hospitals has fueled public anger. The industrial scenario is not very reassuring. Though the state has received investment proposals worth Rs 300,000 crore, only 2 per cent of the amount has actually materialised. While there is a general slowdown in investments in the whole country, businessmen say they are waiting for land to be allotted and the power situation to improve before they bring in their money.
The symptoms first came into light during his Seva Yatra, which he took to promote his government's Right to Public Service (RTPS) Act. For the first time in seven years, he was shown black flags and people complained about inefficient delivery of services and his unfulfilled promises. During this Yatra, which he began last year and completed in April this year, Kumar found out several irregularities in the construction of roads, public distribution system and police. However, the government failed to act against those responsible. It failed to act even when Kumar gave a direct order to remove a block development officer and a circle officer in Muzaffarpur.
However, the first major dent to his government’s image was the murder of Brahmeshwar Singh, aka Mukhiya, the leader of the infamous and once dreaded Ranveer Sena, and the violent protests which soon followed. Policemen became silent spectators as violent protestors ransacked the state capital. The police failed to solve the murder and this case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation. While the police inaction baffled the urban population, the murder also alienated a powerful segment of upper caste voters from Kumar’s government.
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The anger against came out in the open during Kumar’s Adhikar Yatra which began on September 19 and was scheduled to end by the last week of October. The idea of the Yatra was to put pressure on the central government to name Bihar a special-category status, which would help him get extra funds from the Centre. But the campaign went badly. Kumar had to face angry slogans and black flags. Contracted teachers were on the forefront of this protest. They were asking for pay and facilities at par with government teachers. Kumar refused to accept their demand. Violent protests erupted. It became an embarrassment for Kumar and he had to abandon the Yatra.
The situation was further complicated by the last month's violence in Madhubani, which erupted over the alleged killing of a teen. For almost 48 hours, the district town was left at the mercy of a violent mob. However, later the teen was found alive in Delhi and the protest died down. But the incident underlined the prevailing distrust for the government among the public.
A few days ago, in a stampede at one of the ghats in Patna during Chhath, 18 children and women died and many more were injured. Apart from the deaths, the unpreparedness of the local administration shook the people. The doctors ran away from government hospitals and the whole disaster management system collapsed. Kumar remained firm that there was no fault at the government’s end. This forced one of his own ministers, Giriraj Singh, to comment, “Sarkar ko tali ke sath-sath gali khane ke liye bhi tayyar rahna chahiye (The government should be ready to take brickbats along with accolades.)”
How did things come to such a pass? Kumar calls it the handiwork of opposition parties. He said a few days ago, “There is a section of people which is not happy with the development of the state. They are trying to spread discontent among the people, but they will not succeed. Bihar has shown it’s resolute and will continue showing that.” Arch rival Lalu Prasad calls the protests “a spontaneous outburst of people”. Says he: “The people have now become fed up with the style of functioning of Kumar. He promised more than he could deliver. They are now protesting against him. There is rampant corruption in welfare schemes and law & order has worsened considerably. Not a single paisa worth of investment came in the state in the last seven years. There has been no development in these years.”
“The answer lies within the government,” says Social Scientist DM Diwakar, “His (Kumar’s) first term was a mandate against Lalu Prasad. He began turning things around. The state machinery became visible and law & order improved. Health services were being delivered. The education system, although with some inherent defects, was also improved. There was a tremendous emphasis by the government on both agriculture and industry. However, this time people compared his performance against their own aspirations. Hence, the discontent becomes visible.” Diwakar points out the loopholes in the delivery system which have paralysed some of Kumar’s ambitious programmes. “There are no questions about his intentions. However, the government still has the same flawed delivery system, which it inherited from the earlier government. To make the delivery system effective and transparent will be a challenge for him,” says he.
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NREGS is a good example of this. Bihar’s last economic survey, for 2011-12, shows that only 13 million job cards were issued in the state for a population of 107 million. Out of these job card holders, only 36 per cent people, or 4.68 million, were provided employment in 2010-11, and only 5.6 per cent got 100 days of employment. For the payment, people have to wait for 2-3 months. The implementation is also marred with embezzlement charges. A few days ago, the state government was forced to order an enquiry into this centrally-sponsored scheme after it received complaints from a Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Environment and Food Security. The NGO has accused implementing authorities of embezzling almost Rs 6,000 crores of NREGS funds between 2006-07 and 2011-12.
Some of the analysts insist that there is insufficient communication between the government and the public. One political analyst says: “Both Prasad and Kumar have one thing in common. Both of their parties do not have a cadre, which is a basic necessity for electoral democracy. The cadre ensures a two-way communication between the government and the public. In the lack of a cadre, the bureaucracy takes over. It stops flow of information and creates a perfect recipe for disaster.” However, some analysts feel that the protests against Kumar have been instigated by some bureaucrats. Shaibal Gupta of the Asian Development Research Institute says: “There is a certain section in the bureaucracy that does not like Kumar. They are trying very hard to defame the chief minister. They are trying to create a discontent.” According to him, “Kumar is trying very hard. The Jankari initiative and RTPS are best examples of his effective governance. Today, under Jankari initiative, information is just a call away. RTPS ensures a timely delivery of government services. These initiatives are unparallel in this country. You cannot take away these achievements from him.”
This is not to say that Kumar’s reputation has been damaged beyond repair and the next elections will be a cakewalk for Prasad. “People are still afraid of Prasad’s rule,” says one observer. “Even his most vicious critics rate Kumar far better than Prasad. If people were given a chance to choose between the two, they will still go for Kumar.”