Patna: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has once again raked up the issue of ‘special status category’ for the state, with the timing of his demand leaving ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) annoyed.
At the Niti Aayog meet in Delhi on 15 June, Nitish sought special status for Bihar, citing the state’s high growth rate but low per capita income, and pleading that the classification would encourage private investment.
Nitish, who has been accused of paying lip service to the cause in his ongoing term as chief minister, went to the extent of demanding the rollback of all central schemes where the state is expected to pay a share, saying “Bihar is not in a position to meet its priorities of entitlement-based public amenities and other requirements”.
Ever since Nitish’s Janata Dal (United) rejoined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2017, he has faced demands from the opposition, primarily the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), to get special status for Bihar, which the latter argues should be eased by the presence of a “double-engine government” — governments of the same configuration at the state and the Centre.
While Nitish has raised the demand before, the timing of his support has always been perceived as holding a larger message, a factor ally BJP suspects is true this time as well.
Adding to the BJP’s displeasure is the fact that Nitish has raised the demand just days after JD(U) national vice-president Prashant Kishor, also a political strategist, signed on to guide rival Trinamool Congress’ 2021 assembly campaign.
Kishor’s support for Mamata Banerjee followed Nitish’s refusal to be a part of the NDA cabinet, after the JD(U) was offered just one ministerial berth like all other allies.
“The BJP is cheesed off about Nitish Kumar giving a free hand to its national vice-president Prashant Kishor to work for Mamata Banerjee’s TMC in the 2021 West Bengal assembly polls,” said BJP MP Gopal Singh.
“Giving a free hand to its national vice-president was an unfriendly act against its ally. The JD(U) should have stopped Kishor or expelled him from the party,” he added.
BJP leaders say the revival of the special-category demand is fired by a “well thought-out political strategy” to keep them on their toes.
“Nitish is aware that the relationship with the TDP (Telugu Desam Party) soured because of the PM’s refusal to give special status to Andhra Pradesh,” added a senior BJP leader.
“After the refusal of the central BJP leadership to give the JD(U) proportionate representation in the cabinet, the JD(U) is again and again trying to reassert that it has an independent stand on several issues,” said another BJP leader.
“The JD(U) has made it clear that it would oppose the triple talaq bill in Parliament. It virtually sacked its spokesperson Ajay Alok for criticising Mamata Banerjee for trying to convert West Bengal into a ‘mini-Pakistan’,” added the leader. “The demand made by Nitish for special status should be seen in the same light.”
Tax breaks and such
If given special-category status, a state has to pay less or no share in central schemes and gets tax holidays for private investment.
As much as 30 per cent of the Centre’s planned expenditure goes to special-category states.
India has 11 special-category states, classified as such because of certain “historical disadvantages” that are seen as impediments to generating the revenue required. Five others, including Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, have been demanding to be identified thus.
Bihar’s demand was rejected by UPA II and the first Modi government on the grounds that the state does not fulfil the criteria.
Meanwhile, the 14th Finance Commission has recommended doing away with special status altogether. The Bihar BJP makes noises about special status too, but has reasserted time and again that a special economic package was preferable.
According to BJP leaders, their doubts about the timing of Nitish’s demand are rooted in precedent.
“Nitish always has a political reason for raising the issue. In the past, he has made it a background to create political upheavals,” said a state BJP minister.
Nitish first raised the issue in 2009, saying he would offer support to the central coalition that promised special status to Bihar.
However, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) got a majority, and Nitish’s support was not needed. Just before snapping ties with the BJP in 2013, Nitish launched a campaign for the same, not allowing the BJP to participate. He held a signature drive and ultimately held an ‘Adhikar Rally’ at Gandhi Maidan in November 2012.
After cutting ties with the BJP, the demand for special status formed Nitish’s main campaign plank in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, but failed to win him public support.
Since the cabinet row, JD(U) leaders said, Nitish has been trying to send a message to BJP leaders that he doesn’t mean to rock the NDA boat but won’t toe every line either.
“The political motive is to create pressure on the BJP not to take it for granted in the assembly polls,” said a JD(U) MP.
To this end, Nitish’s party colleagues said, special status is just one issue. He has also aggressively wooed the minority community to strengthen his heft — he held an iftar party at the CM’s house and participated in several other iftar parties, except the one hosted by the BJP.
He has made it known that his party will oppose the triple talaq bill. “In 2014, too, Nitish aggressively wooed the minority votes. But at the time, the Muslims voted for the RJD,” said a JD(U) MP.
“This time, with Lalu Prasad’s party demolished, the JD(U) believes it has a better chance for Nitish to bring a substantial section of Muslim votes to his fold,” the MP added. “After all, in 2010, a section of Muslims voted for the NDA because Nitish was there.”