Patna: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that Bihar will get a second All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Darbhanga — considered a stronghold of the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal — just ahead of the state assembly elections, has once again brought to the fore CM Nitish Kumar’s propensity to use central projects to win elections.
Central projects and grants have been a key part of Nitish’s politics, dating back to his days as Union minister under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. And unlike his predecessor, Lalu Prasad Yadav, who announced the opening of three railway factories in Saran and still could not take advantage politically, Nitish also seems to understand the importance of their timing and placement.
As railways minister in the Vajpayee government, Nitish launched a number of new trains and railway projects and other central schemes, which helped him acquire the image of ‘vikas purush’ (man of development).
He was instrumental in the launch of a thermal power plant and half a dozen central projects within a 50 km radius of Barh, the now-defunct Lok Sabha constituency he had represented since 1989. He convinced the government to change the alignment of the East-West Corridor of highways to run through Madhepura, Supaul and Darbhanga — areas with significant Yadav populations that were considered Lalu and his RJD’s bastions.
While Nitish lost his 2004 re-election from Barh, his ‘vikas purush’ image would soon reap dividends, as he led the Janata Dal (United) and its ally BJP to power by defeating the 15-year Lalu-Rabri regime in 2005.
Since then, central schemes, along with caste alignments, have been important weapons for Nitish’s continued electoral success. He has ignored, delayed and even put his foot down against central projects when they have not suited him.
Bihar’s 2nd AIIMS in Darbhanga
PM Modi announced Bihar’s second AIIMS in Darbhanga Tuesday, after his cabinet approved it. However, just a year ago, his government had turned down the Bihar government’s proposal to take over the Darbhanga Medical College and Hospital (DMCH), established in 1946 and turn it into an AIIMS.
The second AIIMS for Bihar, after AIIMS Patna, was announced by late Union finance minister Arun Jaitley in the 2015-16 Union budget, but since then, there has been a tug-of-war over its location, as senior BJP leader and now Union Minister of State for Health Ashwini Kumar Choubey wanted it in his hometown of Bhagalpur, while CM Nitish wanted it in Darbhanga.
The Centre demanded the acquisition of 500 acres for the project, and political rivals took digs at Nitish Kumar for not providing land. A central team made several objections to the proposal to take over DMCH — there was no provision for upgrading an old medical college to AIIMS; there was no drainage system, making the proposed new AIIMS vulnerable to water logging; there were several offices and banks located in the old college campus, and the state government had offered land bifurcated by a railway track.
All of these issues still exist, but the central government made a U-turn and gave in to Nitish’s demands ahead of the polls, expected to be held in October-November.
Cozying up to Congress for Motihari central university
The UPA-2 government enacted the Central Universities Act in 2009 to establish 12 central universities across the country. Bihar was also allotted one, but that triggered a war of words between then-human resource development minister Kapil Sibal and CM Nitish Kumar over its location.
Sibal wanted the central university in Gaya because of its connectivity by road, train and air, while Nitish wanted it in Motihari, which he described as the karmabhoomi of Mahatma Gandhi. Sibal went ahead with Gaya despite Nitish’s objections.
Yet, in 2012, the Union government agreed to open another central university in Motihari. At the time, there were signs of a split in the JD(U)-BJP alliance, because Nitish’s party had decided to support Congress candidate Pranab Mukherjee for President of India, instead of the NDA-backed P.A. Sangma. The Congress was looking to appease Nitish, and he ended up getting his way.
The reason he wanted the university in Motihari was also political — he wanted to make a dent in the BJP’s strongholds of East and West Champaran. But this did not lead to the electoral results Nitish wanted, as his ‘grand alliance’ with Lalu’s RJD and the Congress lost most of the seats to the BJP in these districts in the 2015 polls.
Nitish has also overruled the BJP on numerous occasions while the parties have been allied. He advocated the setting up of an Aligarh Muslim University centre in the Muslim-dominated Kishanganj district, attracting strong criticism from BJP leaders and the RSS. Initially, even the UPA government did not warm up to the idea, but Nitish went ahead and allotted 200 acres of land.
In 2008, AMU agreed to open centres in Kerala, West Bengal and Bihar, and the Kishanganj centre was inaugurated by UPA chairperson and Congress president Sonia Gandhi in 2013, just before Nitish snapped ties with the BJP.
Throughout this period, Nitish was trying to woo Muslims into the JD(U) fold — it was one of his main planks in the 2010 polls, despite his ally BJP being far from the community’s choice. Walking away from the BJP in 2013 boosted Nitish’s secular credentials.
Blocking central schemes for gains
A few central schemes, like the Vikramshila University, lie virtually rejected, with the state government refusing to allot land for them.
In the UPA era, Nitish refused to give five acres of land each at 11 places for the opening of central schools in Bihar, saying it was not a priority for him.
N.K. Choudhury, former professor at Patna University, said on the issue: “Nitish Kumar is a master political strategist. He favours a project only if it suits his political agenda. The same goes for central funds. Motihari was not the right place for a central university; it should have been Patna. But Patna did not suit him politically.”
A senior BJP leader who didn’t wish to be identified concurred. “Nitish knows how to use central projects to his advantage — such as the AMU centre when he was wooing Muslims, and batting for the Motihari central university when he wanted to make inroads in Champaran. Now, he wants to assure the voters of Mithilanchal that he is with them, hence the AIIMS in Darbhanga.”
However, P.P. Ghose, economist at the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna, offered a word of caution.
“There’s nothing wrong in taking political advantage of central schemes; all politicians do it. However, it must be ensured that the central projects should fulfil the purpose they were started for. Public money should not be wasted just for political gains,” Ghose said.
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