Patna: The Janata Dal (United)-BJP government in Bihar might be facing the heat for its coronavirus crisis management, but Chief Minister Nitish Kumar can breathe easy for two reasons — the state has no formidable political alternative, nicknamed the TINA factor in politics, and people’s continuing trust in Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The timing of this is critical since Bihar is scheduled to go to polls in October-November this year.
“Our pradhan has been helping us out but he has got no support from the government. We can only hope that things will improve in the coming months. As far as political parties are concerned, all are the same but Modi ji is working for the country. No one else comes close to what he’s been doing,” said Anandi Singh, a resident of Govind Chak village under Vidhan Sabha Sonpur in Bihar.
People across many districts, including Patna, Muzaffarpur and Siwan, expressed similar sentiments when asked about their assessment of the government’s handling of Covid-19.
What works against Nitish Kumar
The mismanagement of the health infrastructure comes to many people’s mind while talking about how the government has dealt with the unprecedented crisis.
Resident doctors of Nalanda Medical College had on 26 March written a letter to the Prime Minister asking for his “urgent intervention” on issues faced by health workers treating coronavirus patients.
The United Resident and Doctor’s Association India had claimed that over 83 resident doctors at Patna’s Nalanda Medical College, who had been exposed to a patient who later tested positive for coronavirus, were “suspected of being positive” themselves. It further said that doctors and nurses weren’t being provided with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a masks, gloves and sanitisers.
The other front on which the Nitish Kumar government faces attack is on its testing numbers. Opposition leaders and experts have questioned the low testing being done. As on 15 May, a total of 43,371 tests had been done for a population of over 10 crore.
Further, cases of people running away from quarantine centres has sparked little confidence that the state government has things under control. As of Saturday morning, the state reported 1,018 active cases of Covid-19 and seven deaths, according to the Union health ministry.
Nitish Kumar’s perceived failures extend beyond the medical crisis.
When Uttar Pradesh brought its students back from Kota, the chief minister took a stern stance and wrote to the Centre on 15 April, stating that letting the students travel would open a “pandora’s box”.
“On what grounds then can you stop migrant labourers from interstate travel?” the letter stated.
Migrants had initially not been brought back to Bihar because it violated lockdown protocol and could lead to a spike in infections. This issue saw even the party’s alliance partner, the BJP openly criticise JDU’s handling of the situation.
The anger, however, is not just over the government not doing enough for the migrants, but also in not acting promptly to get students from Bihar, stuck in various parts of the country, back home.
Apart from that, people in Bihar aren’t happy that their MLAs and MPs haven’t checked up on the ground situation to ensure the district level operations are filtering down to the needy. This despite BJP and JDU leaders claiming that they have been providing food and free ration.
“No one came to check on us. We have received the ration but the Rs 1,000 we were promised has still not been given to us. Lockdown has really affected us and we have not been working for the past two months. We hope things will change soon,” said Meera Devi, a labourer from Chhapra district.
These are just the initial challenges. The government, as is the case with many states, has a long recovery ahead of it, including creating jobs and providing for the needy.
What works for the Nitish Kumar govt
A missing formidable opposition has made the situation for the JDU-BJP government easier.
Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader and the party’s chief ministerial candidate, Tejashwi Yadav, was missing for most of the two months of the lockdown since he was out of the state. When he finally made his way back to Bihar on 11 May, his arrival was met with criticism over his long absence.
This isn’t the first time he’s gone missing; however, the latest instance coinciding with the pandemic crisis has not gone unnoticed. The ruling JDU-BJP combine has already been raking up the issue to their advantage.
Politics aside, when ThePrint spoke to people across districts, they were angry about their loss of livelihood and how access to welfare and essentials has become a daily struggle. But this anger doesn’t seem to be entirely directed at the government. Some said it was the local administrations who were more to blame for the mismanagement.
“You ask questions related to what the government has or has not done. Don’t get into politics. That is different. Vote na raashan pe na bhaashan pe. The CM had announced Rs 1,000 per family for three months and released funds, but it is the babus who are not letting it reach us. The CM should look into this,” said Ram Anuj Rai, a resident of Govind Chak village.
When it came to elections, people said they didn’t really see an alternative to the incumbent government, and this sentiment seems to reverberate across many districts in Bihar.
“Is there any other alternative that we can think of? Even if we had someone like Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal, we would have thought about it. Lalu Yadav’s son is never in Bihar, even during the lockdown we heard he was not there. Anyway elections are quite far, let’s see what will happen,” said Mintu Singh from Saran in Bihar.
“Jo Modi ji kar rahe hain wo koi nahi kar raha. Congress ke time sirf corruption ka sunte the, but aaj koi scam suna? (Nobody else is doing what Modiji is doing. During the Congress government, we only heard of corruption. Now do you hear about any scam?) He has a clean image and he works for the country,” said Ashish Raj, who runs a local grocery store in Chhapra. Raj’s earnings have more or less dried up due to the lockdown.
While the opposition seems to have little public sentiment to count on, the next three months are crucial in terms of making one’s political fortunes. The government has to deliver on ensuring economic activities resume as the lockdown eases, health infrastructure is prepared for a possible spike in cases and the migrants who have returned have jobs.
Congress-RJD clash helps tip the balance
The Congress-RJD alliance is in choppy waters, which further tips the scales in the favour of the JDU-BJP alliance.
Congress workers have been unhappy with how the RJD has been functioning, especially during the lockdown.
“Whatever works are being done for the people and migrants, is being done only by the Congress. Whether it is booking the tickets of the migrant workers or providing them ration, our workers have been working really hard. This has to be reflected in ticket distribution too. We can’t play second-fiddle as it also impacts the morale of the workers. This election is the time for the Congress to make its presence felt,” said a senior Congress leader.
But, for now, it’s the RJD that the BJP is taking on.
Soon after Tejashwi Yadav returned to the state, BJP spokesperson Nikhil Anand said: “While Bihar was busy battling the pandemic, Tejashwi was enjoying a vacation at an undisclosed location. So many times our party pleaded with him to return and join the fight against corona, but he remained true to his reputation of running away whenever a crisis befell the state.”
The BJP and JDU aren’t on the best of terms as well, and criticise each other at every given opportunity. However, the BJP has been cautious, given its string of electoral losses just months after the general election. The BJP lost Maharashtra, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand in state elections. The party is, however, back in power in Karnataka and MP now.
For instance, Bihar BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal had attacked the functioning of the state government during the pandemic, but deleted his Facebook post later.
“BJP had decided to go alone in 2015 buoyed by the 2014 victory but ended up losing. So this time though it is making its importance felt, but it wants to fight the elections with JDU,” said a senior BJP leader.
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