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Chattering class vs silent voter

Nitish Kumar

His eighth anniversary as chief minister of Bihar is, technically, an unprecedented moment for Nitish Kumar — he has always come to his annual observations with a report card as head of a coalition. This time, it will be on his own, as head of the only JD(U) government in the country.

For that reason, and more, this is also probably the toughest anniversary for Nitish — he has lost the cushion of a two-thirds majority in the Assembly thanks to the rupture with the BJP in June; he has earned a belligerent enemy in his former allies; he looks politically more vulnerable than he has ever been since he assumed charge of Bihar in the winter of 2005. But for all of that, Nitish Kumar exuded a quiet confidence about his work being his best certificate. “Log dekhenge kisne kaam kiya, kisne nahin kiya,” he told The Telegraph in an interview at his 1 Aney Marg residence, “Log bewakoof nahin hain.” (People see who has done the job and who has not, people are not fools.) Excerpts:

Q: How do you sum up your performance over the last year, particularly now that you have broken with your long-term ally? Was that distracting?

A: What happened to the alliance has nothing to do with governance; that was a separate thing, that was politics and ideology. Governance has proceeded along the lines of the agenda of governance we have had all this time. I would say good progress has been made given our constraints. Especially in areas where huge expectations were attached.

Power, for instance. I had made a promise in 2012 that if I cannot improve the power situation I will not go asking for votes. Power has improved.

From 700-800 megawatts a few years ago, we are now generating 2,300 megawatts, and the results are visible. This will improve further. One power unit in Kanti has been revived, Barauni is set to become functional again, there is a new facility in Barh. I know there are still problems with transmission and distribution but we are working on it.

The encouragement to women and girls in many sectors has been amplified. Their participation has increased, that is a big thing to me. All schoolgirls are now getting a scholarship up to Class X, we have been able to retain more and more at school.

Infrastructure upgrade is continuing apace. Three new bridges have been sanctioned across the Ganga, they are all big projects. A bridge across the Kosi that I was pledged to inaugurate on January 14, 2014, will be opened a month ahead of schedule. Work on the Ganga embankment has begun, the state-of-the-art museum we planned is under construction in the centre of Patna. Things are moving.

Q: Why is there this impression then among people that governance in your second term has suffered, especially after you broke with the BJP? There is palpable public criticism which was absent in previous years.

A: It has not been hit one paisa. But what is one to say of this chattering class that sometimes says Ganesh is drinking milk, sometimes says the gods are eating up salt. What is one to do about myth-makers? They (meaning the BJP) are more vocal, they have a grip on the chattering circles, that is true. But there are many who are silent, are they not going to vote? There is a reverse consolidation happening in the polity to the new noises you hear. A negative atmosphere is being deliberately created, there is an attempt to pervert the discourse. I am not going to respond to afwah (rumour) masters. People see who has done the job and who has not, people are not fools.

Q: Even so, there have been lapses recently. The bomb blasts in Gaya and Patna, the poisoning of schoolchildren, the way mobs were allowed to run amok in Patna after Bramharshi Mukhiya’s killing last year. There is an impression the administration is losing its grip.

A: I will address those issues one by one. In the Mukhiya case, it was a deliberate decision to let the funeral procession come to Patna. There was anger among his followers, they were intent on it, the issue was to conduct the funeral procession peacefully. That did not happen, unfortunately. But once disturbances began, again the choice was between confronting the crowd or letting the anger pass before action was taken against the guilty. I know there has been criticism about the way the incident was handled, but to my mind, intervening with an emotionally charged crowd would have sparked more violence.

The schoolchildren’s deaths were very tragic, but it was not a case of neglect or food poisoning, it was pesticide. We learnt our lessons, processes have been tightened. I saw news of a rat found in another school meal today. Action has followed, people are on their toes.

The blasts, who would have thought they would happen in Bihar? Our politics does not have a culture of violence, especially terror violence. Who would have thought someone will try to bomb a Gandhi Maidan rally? We had done routine checks, but you know how Gandhi Maidan is. It is impossible to sweep the whole ground, check everybody coming in. But now, those drills will have to be put in place, everyone will have to follow security protocols, go through metal detectors. Then people will say they are being harassed, people are not being allowed in. You know how things work.

Q: There’s a related issue here. Following the blasts, people have alleged your government is soft on terrorists because there is the question of the minority vote.

A: Absolute nonsense, let anybody come and make that allegation face to face with me and I shall respond to it. We have a government in Bihar, we have responsibilities, we are entrusted with upholding law and order. What is the evidence we have been soft on terrorists or on Left-wing extremists? Let anybody prove we have not done whatever needs to be done to tackle both. Irresponsible things have been said about the handling of the arrest of Yasin Bhatkal. Central agencies wanted him, why don’t people find out whether there were differences on what to do with Bhatkal between the IB and the NIA?

Q: Is it not true though that there is a change in the public mood? Do you sense it? Two years ago, you had told us Bihar was in a ‘Dil Maange More’ mood. Is that your sense even today?

A: Look, the work is proceeding as it was. I am committed to it. But there will be critics and criticism, that is the nature of democratic societies. When we got a huge majority in the last election, we still had about 40 per cent of the vote, no more. So some people or sections are always against you, no matter what is done. I have drawn my lessons on what requires to be done in Bihar from small incidents in my experience. Over my many years in politics in Bihar, I have come to conclude that education, health care and positive discrimination for women and for underprivileged sections is absolutely necessary. That is what we have concentrated our efforts on. It is difficult to please all people all the time, but people will eventually understand the difference between good and bad and they will make a choice. Of this I am sure.

Q: Does Narendra Modi’s arrival on the scene worry you? Does the BJP’s belligerence worry you? After all, you have to face both the BJP and Lalu Prasad as adversaries now.

A: I am not worried on that count. I do not have sleepless nights. What’s the need? I know I am doing the job as well as I can. The consequences will follow. As for people who are talking about a hawa (wave), let me tell you that is hawabaazi (bluster). It is true I took a gamble, but it was based on ideology and principle. If others believe they will succeed on the basis of a section of the youth and corporate houses and strategists, they are deluding themselves. They are also trying to breach social peace and harmony. I know just how desperate they are to create disturbance and polarisation. As chief minister I know more things than I can reveal. But the very fact we have defeated their efforts is proof of the success of our efforts to keep law and order and to defeat their designs. Bihar is a very complex society. I have fought elections since 1977, so I can claim to have some sense of why people vote and why they do not. The BJP talks of a higher success rate. That itself gives the lie to their claims. Higher success rate for the BJP in the last elections means that our vote got transferred to them and theirs did not get transferred to us. Ab ata-daal ka bhaav maloom chalega (now they will realise the true nature of things).