Patna: Even as the Bihar government prepares to receive migrant labourers — 28,467 of them are scheduled to return in 24 trains Thursday — the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown have brought out the fissures in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Both the BJP and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) had been at loggerheads over the state government’s handling of the crisis, particularly with regard to migrant labour.
The latest bone of contention is media reports that the Ministry of Railways is set to move the British-era Indian Railway Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering (IRIMEE) from Jamalpur in Bihar’s Munger district to Lucknow.
It is also being seen as the reason behind Nitish’s decision to reach out to the opposition — the chief minister met opposition leaders including the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav Tuesday night to ostensibly discuss Covid-related issues.
On Wednesday, JD(U) minister Sanjay Kumar Jha, a close confidant of the CM, publicly expressed his displeasure against shifting of the institute.
He tweeted that Bihar was taking strong exception to the Railway Ministry decision, adding that Nitish had written to Railways Minister Piyush Goyal on 1 May to rescind the order.
“This oldest central training institute has been an iconic institution, and a pride of Bihar. Estb in 1888, IRIMEE #Jamalpur has been most coveted center for training to Indian Railway’s top brains since 1927. How can a legacy of 93 years be wiped off so brazenly?” he tweeted while also tagging the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
1/5#Bihar takes strong exception to @RailMinIndia's 24 Apr order to shift prestigious #Jamalpur-based Indian Railway Institute of Mechanical & Electrical Engineering out of Munger. CM Sri @NitishKumar has asked Sri @PiyushGoyal to intervene on this regressive move.@PMOIndia
— Sanjay Kumar Jha (@SanjayJhaBihar) May 6, 2020
The outburst prompted Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, a senior BJP leader, to declare that the report was misleading. “Railways Minister Piyush Goyal has told me that there is no such proposal,” Modi told ThePrint. “Since the chief minister has written to the railway minister, the matter will be cleared.”
The JD(U) is, however, not convinced by the deputy chief minister’s assurances.
“The CM does not write letters on the basis of rumours. If the report is false, Goyal should have contradicted it himself,” said another JD(U) minister who did not want to be named.
He pointed out that the Centre had ignored the Bihar government’s plea in 2015 to grant IRIMEE the status of a university. The Railways had then upgraded the National Academy of Railways in Vadodara, Gujarat.
The Railways has not conducted exams for the IRIMEE over the past few years, the minister added.
On Thursday evening, however, the railway ministry released a press statement stating that it had no plans to shift the IRIMEE to Lucknow. “Any assertions to this effect are incorrect and misleading and do not have the approval of the Ministry of Railways,” the statement said. “In fact, Ministry of Railways has planned to enlarge the activities of IRIMEE to also impart educational programs in transportation technology and management.”
Discord during pandemic
There has been discontent in the BJP over the way the JD(U)-led government has handled the crisis.
State BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal attacked the functioning of state bureaucracy during the pandemic on his Facebook, though he deleted it later. Nitish is known to rely on the bureaucracy in administrative matters, putting civil servants ahead of even state ministers.
When Nitish dug in his heels in not allowing the return of students and migrant labourers in the midst of the lockdown, state BJP leaders such as Dr C.P. Thakur openly disagreed with him.
When BJP-ruled states such as UP and Gujarat sent buses to ferry stranded migrant labourers and students from Kota, Nitish had made his displeasure public, saying they were violating the sanctity of lockdown.
Opposition meeting not all cozy
Nitish’s decision to reach out to the Opposition Tuesday surprised Bihar’s political circles. A third JD(U) minister, however, said the chief minister has had trysts with the opposition whenever he has trouble with the BJP.
“When there were deaths of children in Vaishali and Muzaffarpur due to encephalitis last year, Nitish warmed up to the opposition that strongly defended him and instead attacked BJP Health Minister Mangal Pandey,” the minister said.
Last year, there was talk of a reunion between Nitish, the RJD and the Congress but it died down after then BJP president Amit Shah made it clear that Nitish will be the NDA’s CM candidate for assembly elections scheduled for 2020.
Tuesday’s meeting with the opposition was also not a cosy affair.
“We had to wait for 42 days for the chief minister to talk to us. The government was not able to provide many answers like details of the help extended by the Centre, how many ventilators Bihar has or increasing the inflow of migrant labourers back to Bihar,” Tejashwi Yadav told the media after the meeting.
The opposition also questioned the wisdom of the government on relying on screening and then testing, and demanded prepaid railway tickets for the migrant labourers.