Nitish Kumar has had a change of heart. For more than a decade, he has vociferously demanded the grant of Special Category status to Bihar — a demand he projected as being indispensable to the state’s development.
But when Narendra Modi visits Patna on October 14, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar does not plan to even raise the issue with the Prime Minister.
Two days ago, when Nitish was questioned about a senior JD(U) leader saying that the party was ready to compromise on the special category status demand, the CM did not deny it.
In fact, ever since he re-joined hands with the BJP to form a government in July-end – after dumping the RJD and the Congress – Nitish has not once mentioned this old demand during the dozens of official and public functions he has addressed.
This seems to have surprised everybody, including JD(U) leaders and workers, as in the past Nitish has done everything from launching a signature campaign to taking out rallies to staging dharnas to push for the special status for the state.
Nitish has repeatedly stated that Bihar would take at least 25 years to touch the national average of economic growth, if the special category status was not accorded to it. “It is a must for the development of Bihar and it is a right of the people of Bihar,” the CM had said.
In 2010, Nitish launched a campaign to collect 1 crore signatures, and submitted 1.25 crore signatures in 2011 to then PM Manmohan Singh. In 2012, he took out the ‘Adhikar Yatra’ (Rights March). He organised other rallies in Patna and Delhi, all in support of the demand.
Special status for Bihar was his party’s main poll plank for the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the 2010 assembly polls, and then the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2015 assembly polls.
In fact, Nitish had accused Modi of betraying the people of Bihar, as the PM had promised special status to the state during his Lok Sabha polls campaign.
He had raised the issue at the Inter-State Council meeting in Delhi in July 2016.
This May, Nitish again pressed for the special status and assistance to Bihar in a three-page letter submitted to Modi.
In the letter, the CM highlighted that even after achieving double-digit growth rate over the past many years; Bihar is still behind the national average on major developmental parameters, such as the poverty line, per capita income, industrialisation, and social and physical infrastructure.
“A new policy framework is needed to uplift Bihar from backwardness and bring it to the national mainstream. Special category status would ensure further growth because of greater availability of resources due to increased central share in the centrally sponsored schemes and incentivise private investors,” he said.
In May, JD(U) spokesperson Neeraj Kumar said, “Modi had promised to provide special status to Bihar after being elected to power. But he has not only forgotten his words, his government is discriminating against the state in providing funds meant for development and implementation of welfare schemes.”
Now, of course, Nitish has made it clear that the demand is not even on the discussion agenda when Modi visits to participate in the centenary celebrations of Patna University. Yet the CM maintains that he has not dumped the special status demand, indicating that he wants to play it safe.
Things were still looking up – or at least the people, including JD(U) leaders, were still hopeful – in the days after Nitish and the BJP got back together. The JD(U) leaders themselves were projecting the message that it was only a matter of days now before the Centre accorded the special status to Bihar.
In fact, Nitish and deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi had claimed that Bihar would be on the fast track to development, because of governments of the same party or alliance at both the Centre and the state.
But things are different now, as even JD(U) leaders admit that the NDA government is reluctant to lend a helping hand to Bihar in its development.
“It is clear by now. Even 75 days after Nitish Kumar formed the government with the BJP after dumping the RJD and the Congress, no special package for Bihar was announced. Modi had made similar promises during the Lok Sabha and assembly polls,” said a senior JD(U) leader, speaking anonymously.
What’s more, Union minister Giriraj Singh – known as a staunch supporter of Modi and a champion of Hindutva politics – had publicly rejected Nitish’s demand of special status for Bihar. “One should talk about development, not special status,” said Singh.
He was the second Union minister to do so. Last month, the Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Ministry of Planning, Rao Inderjit Singh, had made similar observations over the grant of special status to Bihar.
Responding to this, JD(U) general secretary and the party's leader in the Rajya Sabha, RCP Singh – who is considered close to Nitish and number two in the party – said the party was ready to make a compromise with its old demand.
“The situation has changed, and in this changed political situation, we have no problem in leaving behind our old demand,” he said, three days ago.
The BJP seems to exercising its upper hand in Bihar now, backed by the Modi-led national leadership, and it wants to play the game by its own rules.
“If Bihar was accorded special category status, Nitish and JD(U) would take credit for it, and the BJP does not want that,” said a senior BJP leader, on condition of anonymity,
This dominant stance of the BJP seems to have upset the JD(U), but the latter is reluctant to express it in public.
A JD(U) legislator said the BJP has been behaving like the big brother in Bihar, despite the fact that it has only 53 legislators.
“JD(U) was big brother when it formed government with the BJP in 2005 in Bihar, and it continued till 2013. But the BJP is more aggressive and assertive now. It is no longer ready to play the chhota bhai, thanks to the backing of the national leadership,” he said.
Andother JD(U) leader said, “JD(U) was left high and dry by not getting entry into the Union Council of Ministers. The party was hopeful after striking an alliance with the BJP in Bihar, but was disappointed. It was a clear first signal by Modi and BJP president Amit Shah that the JD(U) and Nitish Kumar would be dealt with differently this time, contrary to expectations.”
Meanwhile, the JD(U) leadership remains silent over the BJP’s plans to make inroads into Nitish Kumar’s own caste Kurmi vote-bank, an OBC category, in Bihar.
But JD(U) leaders were surprised when a senior BJP leader and party spokesperson Rajeev Ranjan, who was once considered close to Nitish, announced a Kurmi rally in November. However, the rally was postponed.
“The Kurmi rally has been put on hold, not cancelled. Whenever the party gives me a green signal, I will organise it,” said Ranjan, who belongs to the Kurmi caste himself, and hails from Nitish’s home district of Nalanda. Ranjan said it might happen before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls or before the 2020 Bihar assembly polls.
While the BJP attempts to promote a Kurmi leader in Nitish’s stronghold of Nalanda, JD(U) leaders claimed that Kurmis have overwhelmingly supported Nitish for more than two decades now.
However, a political watcher pointed out that unlike the most dominant OBC caste Yadavs, Kurmis had no problem with the BJP, so the party might succeed in its attempt to woo them.
The BJP has also launched a ‘New Bihar’ campaign on the lines of ‘New India’, in its attempt to reach out to all sections of people in the state. “The BJP is aiming to become the number one party in Bihar,” said a BJP leader.
Sensing something is not going right in the new alliance, the JD(U) has officially announced its decision to make preparations for 2019 parliamentary elections in all the 40 Lok Sabha constituencies in Bihar.
In fact, JD(U) was forced to make this public after Amit Shah asked his party’s state core team members on September 14 in Delhi to work on all the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar.
There are speculations that the BJP will not give more than 7 to 8 Lok Sabha seats to JD(U) in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, on the ground that JD(U) had won only 2 seats in 2014 elections.
The BJP also has to take care of its old allies, like the LJP of Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan and RLSP of Union minister Upender Kushwaha and HAM of former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi.
In 2014, the BJP alone won 22 Lok Sabha seats, and intends to contest nearly 25 seats in the next polls. BJP’s allies LJP and RLSP won 6 and 3 seats, respectively.
The BJP-led NDA won 31 out of 40 seats in Bihar.
A strong BJP will be a bad sign for the JD(U) in the coming months, especially keeping in mind the upcoming state assembly elections.
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