New Delhi: In Monday’s video conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar once again protested that some states are not following the rules laid down by the Centre related to the lockdown, and allowing migrant labourers and stranded students to return to their states.
Nitish pointed out that it is clear from the central guidelines that no inter-state or inter-district travel is allowed. But he has been facing pressure from many quarters, including his ally BJP, to find a solution and bring back students from India’s coaching hub Kota in Rajasthan, as well as other places.
Soon after the CMs’ conference with the PM, Bihar Deputy CM and BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi tweeted that he hoped the Kota students’ issue would soon be resolved.
प्रधानमंत्री नरेंद्र मोदी के साथ वीडियो कांफ्रेंसिंग में बिहार के मुख्यमंत्री नीतीश कुमार ने कोटा और देश के अन्य शहरों में फँसे छात्रों को वापस लाने के लिए एक समान नीति बनाने की तात्कालिकता पर जिस तरह से जोर दिया, उससे अब जल्द ही इस मुद्दे का समाधान निकलेगा।
जिस लॉकडाउन से…… pic.twitter.com/dKK8DChgzh
— Sushil Kumar Modi (@SushilModi) April 27, 2020
However, Bihar’s water resources minister and close Nitish associate Sanjay Kumar Jha of the Janata Dal (United) told ThePrint that the ball was in the Union home ministry’s court.
“When the Union home ministry issued comprehensive guidelines on 15 April under the Disaster Management Act, and prohibited inter-district and inter-state movement, it is up to the Centre to relax rules and allow such movements. There can’t be different rules for different states. We are ready to bring back students, but there cannot be two rules,” he said.
Jha added: “Thousands of students are stranded in Delhi, Odisha, Pune… We can’t make one rule for Kota students and another for Pune students, or another for migrant labourers. Over 25 lakh people stranded outside Bihar have applied for assistance under the CM’s relief fund, and we have provided assistance to 15 lakh people, but to bring them back, the Centre has to change the rules.”
Sanjay Jaiswal, BJP MP from Bihar’s Champaran, also expressed hope the Home Minister Amit Shah would resolve the issue.
“We have received several calls from party workers and district presidents to help bring back students from not only Kota but other parts of India also. We have apprised the CM as well as the Centre of our concerns. We are hopeful that the Union home minister will resolve this matter in a day or two,” Jaiswal said.
Nitish’s consistent approach
Nitish’s stand is quite different from other states like neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, whose CM, Yogi Adityanath, sent buses to Kota and the state’s borders to bring back 7,000 students and migrant labours. Adityanath even allowed inter-district travel of labourers from Allahabad.
Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Gujarat’s Vijay Rupani, both of the BJP, have followed a similar approach to bring back their students.
However, Nitish has spoken about prioritising migrant labourers over students in Kota, especially on 18 April, when UP had sent 300 buses to fetch students.
“Students studying in Kota come from well-to-do families. What is the urgent need to get them home while migrant workers are stranded in other parts of the country?” the Bihar CM had said.
Three days before that, Nitish had written to the Centre, pointing out that letting students travel would open a Pandora’s box. “On what grounds can you then stop migrant labourers from inter-state travel?” he had asked.
A state BJP leader said on the condition of anonymity: “Nitish is protecting his vote bank by associating the Kota students with poor migrant labourers. The BJP is protecting its own vote bank, which is normally the middle class, whose children are stuck in Kota, Pune and other parts of India. But in alliance politics, we can’t be vocal in our demands; we have communicated our concerns to the government.”
The leader said the tricky situation was communicated to the BJP’s state in-charge Bhupendra Yadav and party chief J.P. Nadda last week.
Criticism won’t impact Nitish electorally
A JD(U) leader said Nitish’s approach would not impact his or the party’s electoral future.
“Nitish is a smart politician and he has the power to convince the electorate. He is showing that he is only taking PM Modi’s line of protecting lives in this difficult time. The message is that if you have faced difficulty during this time, it’s no problem, because this was essential to save your life. People supported demonetisation despite difficulties; they will support Nitish on this issue,” the leader said.
Another JD(U) leader said Nitish has taken a calculated approach.
“He knows there are two risks in allowing mass movement of migrants. One, that the numbers are huge — we have received 25 lakh applications from Biharis outside the state who are in crisis and need help. It is not possible to bring them back by sending buses; it would need calibrated strategy, resources and central support,” the second leader said.
“Two, such a huge migrant population can spread the coronavirus spread, so there needs to be quarantine space and other facilities. If the number of cases, which is under control right now, rises after they come home, this will be another challenge,” this leader said.
RJD blames Nitish for humanitarian crisis
The opposition RJD is constantly raising questions about Nitish’s “failure” to bring back students and migrants.
The party’s state chief and former minister Jagadanand Singh said: “Bihar is facing two crises — a medical disaster created by the coronavirus, and a humanitarian crisis created by Nitish Kumar through his poor handling of the issue of bringing back migrants and students.”
On the JD(U)’s argument that the coronavirus cases could go up if the migrants and students return to the state, Singh said: “The argument falls flat because why aren’t the numbers climbing where these people are currently staying?”
However, the first unnamed JD(U) leader quoted above said in the absence of Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is in jail after being convicted in the fodder scam, JD(U)’s electoral prospects are likely to suffer less.
“RJD has no credibility in the absence of Lalu, and Nitish’s credibility is intact. He does not mind the current criticism. If he handles the situation well now, nobody will remember the difficulties of this time six months later, when elections are due in the state,” the leader said.
“Right now, it is important to save lives. Nitish’s initiative to screen the whole population, like pulse polio, has received positive feedback, and it can be a game-changer in the long run,” the leader added.