What’s the best way to silence critics? Just befriend them! That's exactly what Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is doing in his bid to rule the state peacefully. This is in sharp contrast to the dispensation of his predecessor Mr Lalu Prasad ~ once the mighty Bihar strongman now reduced to being the modest president of a regional Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ~ who is said to have made more enemies than friends while in power.
One of the main reasons why Mr Prasad lost his 15-year-old political empire consolidated with much effort and caste manoeuvering was his folly in underestimating the power of the Opposition, which continued to highlight failures of his RJD government among the masses. Having witnessed at close quarters this rise-and-fall drama of RJD's empire, Mr Kumar just does not want to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor. As he tightens his already firm grip over state politics, working on his long-term political agenda to break his predecessor's record of ruling Bihar for 15 years, Mr Kumar has gone out of his way to ensure he faces no vocal critics from any political party ~ whether they are from the RJD which is the main Opposition party in Bihar, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) or the seemingly-insignificant Congress. The more vocal the critic, the sooner he is trapped by the ruling regime. This has resulted in an alarming dearth of detractors in Bihar over the past few years alongside the fast-diminishing Opposition which appears to be on its “death bed”.
This unique poaching by the Nitish Kumar regime has nearly destroyed the RJD, which now gives the impression of being a haunted house. The party does not even have spokespersons of stature to communicate with voters or to pick up issues that would interest the common man. Almost every party has changed itself to suit the demands of the times, but the RJD still keeps on harping on the same old, hackneyed issues ~ usually analysing every issue through the prism of “RSS” and “communal forces” in which common people have no interest.
As a result, the party which once enjoyed the support of the backward, oppressed and Muslim communities, is now battling hard to prove its relevance in the political arena. Most people want to be reassured about “development”, even if real development remains elusive. Using development as his mantra, the Bihar chief minister has killed two birds with one stone ~ reaching out to common voters on one hand and on the other, luring even his bitterest-ever critics to his party on the pretext of getting them branded as “pro-development” politicians! And, this has worked wonders. All his critics have now become his friends, to be more precise, his “yes men”.
The result is that praise for Bihar overpowers voices of protest against the notion that the present regime is ensuring “growth of a particular class”, that is contractors, businessmen and brokers. It’s quite obvious that the contractors will benefit more when there are more construction works on ground. Of course, development works have picked up pace in the state but corruption also flourishes at an alarming level with the poor quality of work telling the entire tale. Yet, silence prevails on the ground since every one ~ from officials, brokers and businessmen to politicians ~ apparently get a share of the pie. This silence, surely, would not have been possible had there been a sizeable number of critics.
Ever since Mr Kumar became the chief minister in November 2005, he has been attempting to lure RJD leaders to the JD-U fold, no matter how insignificant they are or had been during the previous RJD regime. At present, 18 top leaders who were once part of RJD chief Mr Prasad’s inner circle and decided policy issues during the RJD regime are in Mr Kumar's team.
They include Mr Ranjan Prasad Yadav, now JD-U MP for Pataliputra who once was known as a “friend, philosopher and guide” of the RJD boss, Mr Prasad, and several former RJD ministers. Included are Mr Uday Narayan Chaudhari (jail minister in RJD government); Mohammad Taslimuddin (building construction minister and the RJD’s prominent minority face); Mr Shivanand Tiwari (excise and prohibition minister); Mr Shyam Rajak (energy minister); Mr Monazir Hasan (minister for arts, culture and youth affairs); Mr Shakeel Ahmad Khan (minister for law, energy and minority welfare); Mr Ramai Ram (minister for revenue and land reforms); Mr Jitan Ram Manjhi (education minister); Mr Purnmasi Ram (minister for food and civil supplies); Rama Devi (minister for public health and engineering); Mr Mahabali Prasad Singh (road construction minister); Mr Bijendra Prasad Yadav and Brishen Patel (both of them also ministers); Mr Bhola Prasad Singh, Mr Bhim Singh, Mr Mangani Lal Mandal, Mr Ram Bachchan Rai and Mr Mahendra Singh. Of this group, six are currently ministers in the present Nitish Kumar government holding key portfolios, such as energy, parliamentary affairs, excise and prohibition; transport, information and public relations; revenue and land reforms, rural works, SC and ST welfare; and food and consumer protection. One of them, Mr Uday Narayan Chaudhary, is Speaker of the Bihar Assembly while eight others are Members of Parliament ~ both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Of them, Mr Shakeel Ahmad Khan, Mohammad Taslimuddin, Mr Sivanand Tiwari, Mr Shyam Rajak and Mr Ram Bachan Rai had been bitter critics of Mr Kumar while in the RJD, always criticising the latter in the media for cosying up to the “communal” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The same leaders maintained a stony silence even when the Bihar chief minister flagged off the anti-corruption yatra being undertaken by Mr Lal Krishna Advani, one of the main accused persons in the Babari mosque demolition case.
How worried Mr Kumar has been about his critics is underlined by the fact that he even lured spokesmen from other rival parties. They include Mr Sanjay Singh, chief spokesman for the LJP and Mr Mahachandra Prasad Singh, spokesman for the Congress and a prominent upper caste face. Both of them now enjoy key posts in the ruling JD-U headed by Mr Kumar. A couple of days back, the LJP’s Rajya Sabha member Mr Sabir Ali was welcomed into the JD-U in the presence of the chief minister. The JD-U has targeted the LJP ruthlessly, so much so that the party has no one to represent it in either House of the state legislature. The LJP had three lawmakers in the Upper House of the Assembly and an equal number in the Lower House. But recently, all defected to join the JD-U.
Says political analyst Mr Prem Kumar Mani: “What Nitish Kumar is currently doing is baiting his principal adversary (Mr Lalu Prasad) by welcoming his men into his party but in the process, he has made a caricature of himself…This is simply the ‘Lalu-isation’ of Nitish Kumar.” According to him, every circle has a nucleus which automatically shifts when the circle shifts. “Now that the entire circle of Lalu Prasad has joined Nitish Kumar’s party, it’s but natural that the former ‘yes men’ of the RJD chief will have their own nucleus. How can you then expect good things from these men who messed up things during the RJD regime?” says Mr Mani.
The Bihar chief minister’s rivals say that in order to sell his brand of “good governance”, he has successfully wooed the international media, now that the local media has more or less fallen in line following the government’s alleged threat to stop advertisements if they followed anti-government stories. Recently, two prominent international publications, Time and The New York Times, carried reports suggesting that Mr Kumar had turned this eastern Indian state into a model for Indian reforms.
The correspondents of these two publications apparently came to this conclusion by, among other things, observing the weekly Junta Durbar of the chief minister or paying visits to a few places around the state capital. One of the publications focused its attention especially on Mr Kumar’s Junta Durbar without apparently asking why the number of visitors at the chief minister’s weekly court has been swelling over the years and also, if everything was fine with the state administration, why common people feet it necessary to travel all the way to Patna with their complaints.
According to an official report, Mr Kumar has personally received around 250,000 complaints from visitors to the Junta Durbar held at his official residence in Patna since 2006. But disposal of grievances is a different matter. According to the report, 29,672 people visited his Junta Durbar with their complaints in 2006; 14,646 people came to the Durbar in 2007; 27,873 in 2008; 45,786 in 2009; 67,897 in 2010 and already 70,000 have come calling this year. The increase in the number of petitioners suggests that the grievance redressal system has failed at the local level, forcing common men to knock at the door of the chief minister with their complaints. But even then, there is no redressal.
Some visitors this correspondent spoke to said they were on their fifth visit, the earlier four having failed to yield results. “The crowds at the CM’s court only indicates that the system is not functioning properly. Why else would common people travel to Patna paying bus/train fares and stand in long queues for hours to get heard?” wondered senior journalist Ajay Kumar.
This is the second time in seven years that the credibility of international media when reporting on Indian issues has come under a cloud. In 2004, Time had to cut a very sorry figure when it gave the “Asian Hero of the Year” award to then Patna district magistrate Gautam Goswami, who was later arrested in the multi-crore flood scam and sent to jail. Goswami died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 41, carrying with him the stigma of a scamster. No wonder, the Opposition alleges that the international media has not been fair in its assessment of the situation in Bihar. “Lalu Prasad’s politics centered around oddities shorn of manners yet he is still remembered by the masses for giving a voice to the poor and the unheard. But Nitish Kumar has nothing to show to his credit. All he has are his slogans of development, but no big industries have come up in Bihar, power situation has not improved a bit and a large section of people are migrating to other states in search of a livelihood,” is how Mr Mani puts it. “Of course, roads are being built but not without the exchequer being robbed first.”
*The writer is the Patna-based Special Representative of The Statesman