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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The once-stable ground beneath Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s feet seems to be slipping as public anger at the failings of his government mounts, reports Sanjay Upadhyay

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has developed a fear of the colour black and certainly not without reason. At several recent public events held as part of his ongoing Adhikar Yatra, he has been greeted by incensed protesters waving flags of that dark shade. The Janata Dal (United) leader has now reportedly barred people who so much as sport black shirts from venturing anywhere near his rallies. Clearly, he is not in a particularly bright mood at the moment.

As popular disaffection against him spreads, Nitish is at the receiving end of inimical political moves not only from his opponents but also his long-time ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP leadership in Bihar has sought to distance itself from the failings of the state government that have sparked public anger even in districts where the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has the political upper hand. BJP state president CP Thakur has indicated that his party is preparing to contest all the 40 parliamentary seats in Bihar in 2014, triggering speculation about a split.

Bihar Health Minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey has asserted that the growing public disillusionment is specifically with the CM's functioning, not with the BJP.

The CM’s Adhikar Yatra kicked off on September 24 from Betiah in West Champaran district. Once a Congress stronghold, the district is now with NDA. All the 13 Assembly seats and three Lok Sabha seats here are in NDA’s kitty. Nitish is known to be very popular among the masses of Champaran.

It is from Champaran that the JD(U) leader built his political fortunes when he broke away from the Rashtriya Janata Dal to form the Samata Party. It was due to his sustained pressure on the government in Delhi that a central university was established in Motihari.

But to his dismay, on the second day of the Adhikar Yatra, Nitish was greeted in Champaran by an angry mob shouting slogans and brandishing slippers at him. A flustered CM beat a hasty retreat only to face a somewhat similar situation in Madhubani, regarded as the hub of the politically conscious Mithilanchal.

The protesters in Madhubani were contractual teachers, who shouted slogans demanding salary parity with regular government teachers. The usually cool Nitish lost his patience and warned the agitated teachers of dire consequences if they did not desist from their protest.

Like Champaran, Madhubani was a Congress bastion until the Nitish magic weaned it away. Of the ten Assembly seats here, seven are with NDA, while the sole parliamentary constituency is represented by the BJP.

Ominously for Nitish, the anger of the masses is beginning to acquire explosive proportions. His convoy was attacked in the Buxar district in May by stone-pelting protesters. The mob was agitated over erratic water and electricity supply in the area.

During his yatra, an irate mob in Khagaria shouted slogans against him and sought to stop his convoy. A local JD(U) worker Ranveer Yadav was seen snatching an automatic rifle from a policeman and firing in the air to disperse the protesters.

The notorious Ranveer was a lieutenant of Lalu Prasad Yadav during RJD rule. He subsequently switched allegiance to the JD(U). During the Khagaria ruckus, the policemen on the spot were mere spectators. The laxity of the CM’s security has come in for sharp criticism from many political quarters in Bihar.

Criticising the conduct of Ranveer, RJD’s Abdul Bari Siddiqui, Leader of the Opposition in the Bihar Assembly, says: “If Nitish has so much faith in his lumpen worker, then he should be made the director-general of police.”

He echoes state BJP president CP Thakur when he says: “The public anger is against the state government, not the saffron party.” Siddiqui has asked the CM to explain “whether the failure of his government was his alone and that of the JD(U) or a collective failure involving the BJP too”.

Lalu Yadav, on his part, has been silent on Ranveer Yadav’s act of taking the law into his own hands. But the RJD supremo has been scathing in his attacks on Nitish at every meeting organised by his party.

As political temperatures soar in Bihar, speculation is rife over the possibility of JD(U) parting ways with the BJP before the next Lok Sabha elections. CP Thakur and the state health minister have set the cat among the pigeons.

Observers have also taken note of the enthusiastic welcome that Nitish Kumar extended to President Pranab Mukherjee during the latter’s Bihar visit. It is being suggested that the CM is gravitating towards the Congress with an eye on the Muslim vote.

Since winning the 2005 Assembly elections, Nitish has been striving to create a new voter base for his party. In many instances, he has been successful in consolidating support for his party. But the appointment of para teachers on contract, which is seen as one such move to garner goodwill, appears to have backfired.

Teachers are regarded as opinion leaders capable of influencing voters in villages, but the new crop of contractual government school instructors are a disgruntled lot. They have been employed on low salaries and are not eligible for the allowances that regular teachers receive.Recently, eminent educationist Krishna Kumar also commented on the anomalies in salaries for these teachers.

At present, Bihar has 2.5 lakh para teachers. By January, 1.5 lakh more are to be appointed. With the existing para teachers on the warpath, the question is, can the CM afford to add to his own woes by augmenting their numerical strength? But that is only one of the many challenges that Nitish Kumar is up against in a scenario in which his sway over the masses is palpably waning.

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