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Wake-up call in seven-year-itch
- Flowers ahead of thorny road

Patna, Oct. 6: Chief minister Nitish Kumar has reason to consider himself fortunate his wake-up calls arrive just in time.

A year before his runaway victory in the 2010 elections, he had suffered a stunning reverse. His party lost the majority of the 18 seats in an Assembly bypoll in 2009. The Opposition, the RJD’s Lalu Prasad most of all, began to smack with glee. Nitish was driven to urgent remedies. He brutally scotched speculation that the “bataidari bill” — a radical land reform initiative that would have hurt interests, especially of the landed among upper castes, across the political spectrum — was on his agenda. He then set out on an elaborate “Vishwas Yatra” (journey of faith) across the state to smell the ground for himself and weed out what rot he could. He fetched spectacular returns.

Midway through his second term, the trill of an alarm is beginning to sound again for Nitish. Resentment has become a rave at the grassroots — too much corruption by the lower bureaucracy, too much red-tape, too little opportunity to seek redress through elected representatives.

“Officers have become all-powerful, they don’t bother listening to anyone,” said Shanti Mahto, a ward panchayat member from a village in Darbhanga. Herself a beneficiary of Nitish’s decision to reserve 50 per cent local body positions for women, Shanti is weary of what is not getting done. “They ask for money at every stage, it is tough to get the smallest job done, people who elected me are asking me what good I am to them. Good work has happened under Nitish, but people want more, and they are certainly not happy with corruption. Who will be happy to lose a good part of their pensions for instance? And nobody listens.”

Very often, and ironically, Nitish is being knocked for expectations he himself raised and promises he fulfilled on way to becoming one of the country’s most lauded chief executives. At Kachchi Dargah, a far remove from Darbhanga, on the southern flank of the Ganges, a young telecom engineer unspooled a more articulate disappointment. “We do not have a leader like Nitish Kumar in Bihar,” said Shah Zaman. “We haven’t had such a leader in a long time because I grew up in the terrible years when Lalu ruled. But if people start finding reason to be disappointed with him too, it is sad for Bihar. We’ve got good roads now, and a growth rate everybody is talking about, but more needs to happen. Law and order has slipped, everybody is on the take, talk to any villager or townsman, it is frustrating.”

Leaders of Nitish’s JD(U) aren’t unaware the heartland is popping with critical echoes. But the tendency among most is to dismiss it as “manufactured and motivated” or to label it “normal anti-incumbency” for a government that has been in power seven years. They point out, with some pride, that no scandal, financial or otherwise, has surfaced during Nitish’s years in power. They buttress their point by saying that Nitish’s own image remains “above reproach even among his adversaries”, that nobody has dared raise a finger on his conduct in office.

They might have a case to justify “conspiracy” in the manner that the agitation of para-teachers for parity with regular government teachers has spread. The preponderant majority of them are vastly under-qualified and were given casual teacherships under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, rather than being formally appointed by the state government. They don’t have grounds to demand parity. But they have been able to raise an unreasoned banner under active, though covert, encouragement from elements in the Opposition.

And they have begun, now, to feed into the floating pollen of disaffection. It’s a murmur you hear most places you go in Bihar and it strikes you in the face because such estrangement with the government had evaporated since Nitish assumed power in 2005.

It is not for nothing that Lalu Prasad has suddenly turned keen on the ground after years of lethargic exile in Delhi. It is not for nothing that Nitish’s ally — the BJP — is daring to issue him the odd taunt: we will invite Narendra Modi to campaign in Bihar, we are prepared to contest all 40 Lok Sabha seats.

The JD(U) has responded stoutly, meeting dare for dare and stating it is preparing to contest 40 as well, but even a year ago the Nitish camp would not have expected the BJP to assume a provocative tone on Narendra Modi or on going it alone . It will be a while before Bihar’s NDA allies arrive at the denouement of the tussle — Modi’s arrival in Bihar could well be the last straw — but squabbling has spilled into the open and the challenge is at Nitish’s doorstep.

Perhaps his first riposte will come on November 4 when he hopes to address a mammoth rally in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan to demand special status for Bihar. Nitish’s extensive “Adhikar Yatra”, currently in the Purnea region of northeastern Bihar, has not merely been an effort to align public opinion to the demand but also a party-building exercise. The JD(U) expects the Gandhi Maidan rally to be “massive as never before”. As one close aide of Nitish put it, “He is putting himself to test again, the November 4 rally will give new impetus not merely to his government but also to his party.”

Thereafter, he added, the chief minister will turn “two eyes and both his ears” to “disturbing feedback” on what’s amiss with governance. Although Nitish has confronted criticism and protest that has peppered his latest “yatra” as “machinations of people who want to disrupt the demand for special status”, he is known to be “privately cognizant” of negative reports from the ground.

Sources suggested to The Telegraph a sweeping survey on the extent of grassroots corruption and ways to plug it may already be in the works at the initiative of the chief minister. That could well be a sign he has heard the trill of alarm with enough time on hand.