“Why has Chief Minister Nitish Kumar become inactive when he is supposed to be super active with the Covid-19 playing havoc in Bihar?”
This is the paramount question occupying the mind of those who have watched Nitish over the years. The question has gained ground because he loathed inactivity. In crisis situations, he acted with alacrity in the past.
For instance, he had resigned as the Railway Minister in the wake of a massive railway accident at Gaisal in 1999, owning the moral responsibility of the disaster that caused the death of over 300 passengers. The then Prime Minister, A B Vajpayee had asked him against putting in his papers but Nitish stuck to his decision, creating the perception that he was not a stickler to power.
Bihar has seen how effectively he dealt with the massive floods caused by the breach in the river Kosi at Kusaha in Nepal in 2008. The turbulent river had changed its course, obliterating thousands of villages and marooning lakhs of people in the Kosi-Seemanchal region. Of course the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh visited the flood hit region and released Rs 1000 crore for the relief. But Nitish got hyper active, setting up thousands of relief camps to shelter and feed the people. He camped in the flood hit areas for days, personally inspecting the quality of the food, medicine and clothes being given to the needy. He roped in various humanitarian bodies across the world to rescue the people. The media gave him a sobriquet of “Quntalia Baba” for giving a quintal of food grain to every family.
There is no way one can compare the 2008 floods and the Covid-19. In terms of enormity, the impact of Covid-19 is, obviously, more disastrous. To be fair to Nitish it can be easily said that Bihar didn’t expect the crisis of such a magnitude. In fact, the Corona is unprecedented and no part of the world had expected it.
What is new in Nitish’s context is his inability to respond. As the executive head of the state he knows that he rules over one of the poorest Indian states with over 12 crore people and has only 2792 allopathic doctors to cater to its dense population. He also knows that the doctor to people ratio is 1:43,778 against the national doctor-population ratio of 1:1800. The national doctor to population ratio too is short of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) stipulation that is 1: 1000. What the Covid-19 has exposed thoroughly is his claim about improving the health infrastructure in Bihar. If at all his government has done something on the health front it is cosmetic in nature.
But what surprises Nitish watchers is the loss of his will to act. He has failed to utilise whatever resources he has and in the process has lost the trust of the people in distress that has caused a massive anti-incumbency against him. The first case of corona was reported in Bihar in March. A corona virus infected patient from Munger died at AIIMS in the third week of March—the time it had begun catching up with Delhi, Maharastra, Punjab and other Indian states. But the Nitish government, apparently, ignored it. The government did nothing to screen the suspected corona patients on the required scale. “Chalta hai (It’s as usual)”—this phrase aptly comprehends the psyche of the CM and his health minister from the BJP, Mangal Pandey—known more for “setting and getting” with his new bosses in his party than doing work related to public interest.
Bihar has over fifty lakh of migrant workers, working in other states. Affected by Covid-19 other states stripped these “outsiders” of their job and abandoned them. Nitish, initially, stopped them from getting back to their native places. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi abruptly declared lockdown on March 24, compounding the distress of these workers rendered jobless and homeless. Lakhs of them travelled on foot for 1000 to 2000 miles to reach home. Thousands were packed like sardines in special trains which started in May to transport them. Hundreds died or fell ill on the way. The Nitish government set up over 15000 quarantine camps to keep them and serve them food and medicine. But it shut all these camps on June 15 when the total number of corona patients was below 5000 in Bihar. The Chief Minister is at loss when the state has got over 34000 people infected by the virus and the figure is rising with the alarming speed.
Nitish was known for guarding his image as an honest leader committed to the broader ideas of secularism and socialism and not showing undue greed for power. He resigned as the Chief Minister in 2014, getting dalit leader, Jitan Ram Manjhi in his place when his party lost massively to the BJP in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He had publicly announced that he would leave the BJP if Narendra Modi was projected as the PM and sticking to his resolve he broke out from the BJP in 2013. Later, he joined the RJD-Congress grand alliance.
But after going back to the BJP in 2017, Nitish looks a pale shadow of what he was. The change in him gets reflected in his administrative decisions. He got K. S. Dwivedi, the controversial IPS officer indicted by the judicial commission for playing a partisan role in infamous Bhagalpur riots in 1989 as the Director General of Police (DGP) after he returned to the BJP fold. As recently as in May when the Covid-19 situation was worsening, he changed health secretary Sanjay Kumar who was believed to have better control over the department but was not in the good book of the BJP’s health minister, Mangal Pandey. Be it the appointment of Dwivedi as the DGP or removal of Sanjay Kumar as the health secretary—Nitish is believed to be taking such disastrous decisions under the pressure from the BJP.
The clouds of uncertainty loom over the elections due ahead of November in the state. It can’t be said with certainty who will win if the elections happen. But what is obvious is Nitish has lost his image as an active leader committed to the ideals of honesty, secularism and socialism.