Patna: Muzaffarpur’s encephalitis tragedy has got the BJP in a bind. The party had gone after Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar over the Muzaffarpur shelter home rape case, but is circumspect in its reaction to the death of over 120 children, which has exposed Nitish to a barrage of criticism.
The reason is that the state health minister is from the BJP. This has prevented the saffron party from attacking the chief minister who has, of late, been flexing his muscles, refusing to join the NDA government at the Centre, denying any ministerial berth to the BJP in his last Cabinet expansion and deciding to oppose the triple talaq bill in the Parliament.
Days after the epidemic struck, the only BJP leader to question Nitish and the state government over the deaths has been senior MP Dr C.P. Thakur. Earlier this week, Thakur had raised questions on the lack of preventive measures to check spread of the disease in Muzaffarpur and other adjoining areas.
“The CM faced protests when he visited the Sri Krishna (SK) Medical College and Hospital in Muzaffarpur on 18 June and had to leave early,” Thakur pointed out in a letter to PM Narendra Modi on 20 June, urging him to visit the facility and set up a biochemical lab that could pacify the angry families.
Thakur minced no words to declare that the state machinery had goofed up by not taking encephalitis seriously.
BJP health minister
In 2014, when encephalitis had killed 90 children in Bihar, the BJP was in the opposition in the state. Current Bihar Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi had then demanded that former state health minister Ramdhani Singh, who was with the JD(U) before moving to the Samajwadi Party, resign from his post.
But days after the outbreak this time, which is now threatening to take the shape of a calamity, Sushil Kumar has been quiet, refusing to answer questions on the deaths due to encephalitis.
The reason — his close confidant and state health minister Mangal Pandey is a BJP member who has been holding the portfolio ever since Nitish rejoined the saffron party in 2017.
In a video that went viral earlier this week, Pandey can be seen asking about the India-Pakistan match score during a visit to the SK Medical College and Hospital with Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan.
“Pandey’s actions even as the state reels under the crisis has been insensitive, to say the least. In the first week of June, when it was becoming clear that AES was taking shape of an epidemic, Pandey flew to Canada to take part in an international conference on women. Upon returning, he kept attending various party meetings in Delhi as well as Saran and Siwan areas of Bihar. He went to Muzaffarpur only when Vardhan visited the state,” said a BJP MP, on condition of anonymity.
He also said that if BJP members attack Nitish’s government, JD(U) leaders will be out “with their knives” against them.
After the 2014 encephalitis outbreak, efforts were made to improve condition of state medical hospitals, ensure basic medical amenities, increase paramedical staff and ASHA workers in a bid to prevent malnutrition as well as raise awareness about water intake during summer. Not surprising then that in the consecutive years — 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 — the number of deaths due to encephalitis were comparatively lower.
Strained alliance and a shaky opposition
The relationship between BJP and JD(U) had strained after formation of the new government. The JD(U) had, on 30 May, refused to be a part of the new government after the BJP offered it only one ministerial berth. Nitish too later offered only one seat to BJP in the Bihar cabinet.
Things soured more when the JD(U) allowed its national vice-president Prashant Kishore to work for West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. The party later also declared that it would oppose the triple talaq bill and revive its demand for special status for Bihar.
“We would have loved to hit back at Nitish. But AES deaths is not an issue where we can,” said a BJP MLA, who did not wish to be named.
It is believed that Pandey was made a minister after he displayed extraordinary organisation skills in Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand during the 2019 general elections. BJP insiders also bracket him as one of the rising stars of the party in Bihar.
“If Pandey has not been served the criticism that he deserves, it is primarily because the opposition is in disarray in the state,” said an RJD MLA, on anonymity.
The main opposition face, Tejashwi Yadav, has disappeared after 28 May and there have only been speculations about his whereabouts.
Senior RJD leader and former Union Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, while declaring that he did not know where Tejashwi was, also speculated that the leader of opposition in the Bihar assembly may have gone to the UK to see the ICC Cricket World Cup matches.
Tejashwi’s close confidant and Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Jha, however, said the leader was in Delhi and “keeping a close watch on the Muzaffarpur episode”.
It took almost two weeks after the outbreak for former CM Rabri Devi to come out with a statement against the Nitish government. RJD leader Sharad Yadav too went to Muzaffapur only two days after Bihar CM visited the district.
“With political enemies like these, Pandey has noting to fear,” said a BJP MP.