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Status strike with bandh

Chief minister Nitish Kumar enters the state legislature on Friday. Picture by Deepak Kumar

Patna, Feb. 21: Nitish Kumar has taken a leaf out of the book of the Left parties by becoming the first chief minister in years to call for a state-wide bandh to protest against the “injustice” of the Centre in not granting Bihar special status.

The call for the bandh has been given for Sunday, March 2, a largely symbolic protest since most offices and business establishments will be closed. Nitish had earlier called for a bandh on Saturday, March 1, but that would have meant inconveniencing thousands of students appearing for the CBSE examinations.

While the JD(U) was actively involved in nation-wide bandhs called by the NDA in 2010 and 2012 over the fuel price hike and FDI respectively, this is the first time as chief minister that Nitish has called for a Bihar bandh.

“I do not know what you call it. I have given a call to the people of Bihar to stop work,” Nitish said when asked if it was not a state-sponsored bandh.

The chief minister had yesterday issued specific instructions to his party’s members in the Lok Sabha to question finance minister P. Chidambaram about the Centre’s dithering over the Raghuram Rajan Committee report that determines backwardness of states — a condition for according special status. Nitish was miffed that the Centre announced a five-year package for Seemandhra but failed to make any commitment on Bihar.

Nitish appealed to all political parties to support the bandh. “I am appealing to every section of society to stop work. Special status to Seemandhra was given in one day after Madam Sonia Gandhi made an appeal. We have been struggling for the same for years. Our demands have been ignored,” he said.

The chief minister pointed out that the Union finance ministry had inexplicably cancelled a meeting scheduled for November 26 last year to discuss the Rajan report. “The meeting was cancelled due to political reasons. Yesterday, Seemandhra got special category status for political reasons,” he said.

Determined not to allow the JD(U) to hijack the issue of special status, the BJP too has lined up a “Rail Roko” agitation on the same issue on February 28. BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi appealed to the people not to travel by train that day.

Modi, however, refused to oblige his former boss over the bandh.

“The chief minister has unilaterally given a call for bandh. He did not consult all political parties. The CM has weakened the case for special status category to Bihar by hijacking the issue and trying to make it look like a one-party issue,” he said, and invited Nitish to sit on a dharna with him at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on the issue if he sincerely believed in it.

By resorting to a bandh, Nitish is emulating his erstwhile Left counterparts in states like West Bengal and Kerala where strikes would be frequently called to protest “discrimination by the Centre”. Seldom has any ruling dispensation in any other state, barring the Marxist-ruled ones, called for a bandh in recent memory. The exception being in Karnataka where on January 22, 2011, the BJP had called a bandh to protest against the sanction given by the governor, HR Bharadwaj, to prosecute then chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa in a corruption case.

Even in Bihar, state-wide bandhs, except those called by the Maoists, have been few and far between. Lalu Prasad led his RJD cadre to organise a Bihar bandh in 1999 when then Governor Sunder Singh Bhandari had recommended President’s rule in the state against the “breakdown of the law and order machinery”.

In the eighties and nineties, the ruling dispensations in Tamil Nadu — be it the regimes of MGR, M. Karunanidhi or J. Jayalalithaa — had called bandhs over issues such as the atrocities on Lankan Tamils, Cauvery water sharing with Karnataka and the Supreme Court stay on the Sethusamudram project. But bandhs have ceased there as well.

Nitish’s call has therefore surprised the people of the state. “The bandh will only stop people from enjoying their Sunday outside their homes,” quipped Pankaj Kumar, a resident of Nageshwar Colony. Anuj Singh, a senior accountant with the Indian Audit & Accounts Department, feels that bandhs seldom serve any purpose except to harass the aam aadmi, many of whom have to bear a financial loss. “The bandh is what I really protest. We can even rest by not working for a day. But think of the people who are on daily wages, they are the ones who suffer. Bandhs are useless and lead to economic loss for the aam aadmi,” he said.

The JD(U) was quick to point out that it cares for the people. “The date was changed because the CBSE exams are being held on March 1,” said state party president Basistha Narayan Singh. The Sunday bandh also eliminates any harassment for the majority of office-goers. “It will be a symbolic gesture,” admitted a JD(U) leader, who did not wish to be named.

The Supreme Court banned bandhs called by political parties in 1998 and even imposed fines on the BJP and Shiv Sena for calling a Mumbai bandh against the serial bomb blasts. However, that has not deterred political parties from calling bandhs. “As a citizen or on behalf of party, Nitish Kumar can make such an announcement. But I do not think Nitish has made the bandh announcement in the capacity of the chief minister as a CM cannot do so,” said senior advocate of Patna High Court, Y.V. Giri.

what the opinion poll says

An ABP News-Nielsen opinion poll predicts that the BJP will get over the half the Lok Sabha seats from Bihar while Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) will find it difficult to reach double figures. However, in a silver lining for the ruling party, its tally and vote share have gone up since the January 2014 opinion poll. The ABP News-Nielsen poll was conducted between February 4 and 15, 2014, in 10 constituencies of Bihar with 2,272 respondents.