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No one is on board with Nitish-JD(U)’s ‘samaj sudhar yatra’ — BJP, other allies, social experts

Bihar CM on 22 December launched yatra against alcohol consumption, child marriage and dowry, but it has been slammed as 'timepass', and a way to 'distract from governance issues'.

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Patna: On 22 December, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar started his ‘Samaj Sudhar Abhiyaan Yatra’ (social reform campaign tour) from the state’s East Champaran district, a day after holding the last cabinet meeting of 2021 at the Valmikinagar Tiger Reserve in West Champaran.

While all BJP leaders who are part of the NDA government in the state were present at the meeting, they returned to the state capital soon after and were not present at the inauguration of the yatra.

“The cabinet meeting was of the NDA government. The social reforms yatra is a JD(U) event,” BJP minister Samrat Choudhary told ThePrint.

It’s been 12 days since Kumar started the yatra — which is aimed at building awareness against alcoholism. dowry and child marriages — but the BJP continues to visibly distance itself from the ongoing campaign, which is set to end on 15 January.

The BJP’s participation in the yatra has been restricted to individual ministers from any district being present at events while the CM is passing through the area or addressing a gathering there. The party has also not issued a single statement in favour of the yatra.

“We appreciate the CM’s yatra, but it is not an NDA programme. It is a JD(U) programme,” said BJP Bihar spokesperson Prem Ranjan Patel.

While there have been reports of growing differences between the two parties, part of the BJP’s reluctance to be associated with Nitish’s programme could stem from the criticism of how the state’s liquor prohibition laws have been implemented, and the public statements made by the CM against alcohol consumption in recent times.

The yatra and its subject — social reforms — have also been questioned by others at a time when there are governance issues being raised in the state.

Defending the campaign, JD(U) spokesperson Rajiv Ranjan told ThePrint: “It (the yatra) is historic and aimed at bringing social change. Earlier, there were social reformers who raised their voice against these issues. But they did not have power. Nitish Kumar has the power and can enforce them socially.”

Also read: Message to BJP? As Bihar appoints Muslim chief secretary, JD(U) says Nitish ‘doesn’t divide’

Yatra ‘timepass’ for Nitish

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, many BJP leaders in the state told ThePrint that they would not like to be associated with the CM’s yatra.

“One look at the arrests made so far (under the prohibition law) reveals that it is mainly Dalits and those from extremely backward castes who have been arrested and jailed under it,” claimed a BJP MLA.

“A recent instance where the police entered even the brides’ rooms to search of liquor during a raid on marriage halls in Patna in November (which had ended in the police drawing a blank), has angered the middle class, which comprises most of our voters,” the MLA added, dubbing the CM’s yatra a “flop show”.

Some BJP leaders also termed the CM’s yatra a “timepass”. “There are several important issues which need to be dealt with — corruption, as every vigilance raid yields huge cash and assets in possession of district level officials, unemployment and poor law and order situation in the state. The yatra only tries to divert the attention from the main issues,” the MLA said.

Differences between NDA allies on the state’s anti-liquor laws cropped up in November 2021, when state BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal called for a review of the prohibition law in Bihar, especially its implementation. The demand had followed deaths in hooch tragedies in the state. But the request was turned down by Nitish Kumar.

The BJP is not the only ally to have distanced itself from the yatra.

Smaller ally Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) has also spoken against the campaign, with former Bihar CM and HAM leader Jitan Ram Manjhi saying in December that people should be allowed to consume liquor after 10 pm. The leader was speaking in favour of moderation. “Thori thori piya karo” (drink a little), Manjhi told his followers at a gathering in West Champaran on 15 December.

Manjhi has demanded a ‘Gujarat model’ of liquor ban, where licences for alcohol consumption are issued to outsiders visiting the state, while fines are imposed on those found drinking publicly.

‘Will not let outsiders drink in Bihar’

The system of enforcing the prohibition law in Bihar, which has put pressure on the courts due to the demand for bail by those charged under it, has also caused the Nitish Kumar government to be criticised by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana.

“A lack of foresight in legislating can directly result in the clogging of courts. For example, the introduction of the Bihar Prohibition Act 2016 resulted in the high court being clogged with bail applications. Because of this, a simple bail application takes one year to be disposed of,” Ramana said while speaking at a seminar in Andhra Pradesh last month.

The CJI’s remarks had helped the rival RJD mount an attack on the Nitish Kumar government. The CJI’s statement had even made BJP leader and former Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi — a staunch Nitish supporter — issue a statement agreeing that more courts should be set up for those accused under the anti-liquor laws.

Over 4 lakh people have been arrested in Bihar since the prohibition law was introduced in 2016, with over 1.93 crore litres of liquor seized. Over 61,000 vehicles have also been seized for carrying liquor, according to excise department data.

Despite criticism of the execution of the prohibition law, however, the Bihar CM has remained firm on his stand, drawing further criticism for some of his statements during the yatra.

While addressing a crowd in Samastipur, Nitish said, “I will not allow outsiders to drink in Bihar. Those who want to consume liquor need not come to Bihar”. The CM’s language was criticised by his former aide and ex-MLC Prem Kumar Mani, who termed it the language of a king and not a democrat.

“Nitish this time has been harping on outdated theme. We used to read about dowry, consumption of liquor and child marriage in the age of (legendary Hindi writer) Premchand,” Mani told ThePrint. “Today, writers have stopped writing on these subjects. One cannot be a Raja Ram Mohan Rai today by launching an agitation against Sati.”

“I find it amusing that Nitish is spending so much time on these outdated issues when the state is at the bottom of all index of development. He is behaving like a student who is engaged in music and fine arts but failing in mathematics,” he alleged.

The Bihar CM has also blamed liquor consumption for health issues including AIDS, much to the surprise of doctors, and spoken against “intellectuals” opposing anti-liquor laws. Reacting to the CM’s statement, Dr Brajnandan Yadav of IGIMS Patna said, “I had never heard that liquor consumption can cause AIDS.”

Such concerns were shared by Dr D.M. Diwakar, former director of A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna.

“The job of a government is not creating social awareness but governance. It should leave social awareness to social organisations. The government can create an atmosphere for social awareness. Had the government introduced it in the curriculum of schools, it would have had a positive impact, instead of the CM going from one place to another,” said Diwakar.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: From special status to namaaz ban, ally BJP is playing opposition to Nitish’s Bihar govt


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