(Except from article by Kavita Krishnan in The Wire)
Nitish’s conscience is certainly an organ of convenience. It did not give him even a twinge when he continued to remain an NDA minister even after the Gujarat government headed by Modi orchestrated the riots in 2002. In 2003 – after the Gujarat riots – Nitish’s conscience allowed him to hint at a national role for Modi thanks to Gujarat’s ‘development’ success.
As Union rail minister inaugurating a railway project in Gujarat, Nitish had said, “I am fully hopeful that Narendrabhai will not remain confined to Gujarat for long, the country will benefit from his services.” In 2009, he and Modi had clasped hands and held them aloft at a function in Punjab. From 2005-2013, Nitish had no trouble allying with the BJP in Bihar, thus creating a conducive and fertile ground for the growth and consolidation of the BJP’s communal and feudal agenda in Bihar. In all those years, Nitish’s government represented an uneasy and barely viable social balance – wooing the extremely oppressed mahadalits and rural poor with the promises of land reform while appeasing the feudal mass-base that the JD(U) and BJP shared.
But in 2013, this social balancing act began to wobble, with a widespread sense of anger among the poor about Nitish’s betrayal of his promises of land reform and social reform, serial acquittals of massacre-accused men and instances of corruption and police repression. Right on cue, Nitish’s conscience awoke and he broke with the BJP, declaring that his commitment to secularism would not allow him to accept Modi as a prime ministerial candidate. Why did Nitish’s “secular” conscience, which was able to suggest a national role for Modi in 2003 immediately after the 2002 Gujarat riots, baulk at him being declared the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate a decade later? No doubt what tilted the balance for this amenable and flexible conscience was the shrewd calculation sticking to the BJP and failing to embrace a new political script was likely to jeopardise his re-election in 2015, and that a break with the BJP could be an effective and timely remedy for anti-incumbency. Even in 2013, it must be remembered, that Nitish was careful to ensure that his discovery of a secular conscience did not come at any cost to his government.
Similarly, Nitish made an “emotional” decision to step down and replace himself with Jitan Ram Manjhi as chief minister of Bihar following the JD(U)’s poor performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls – only for his emotions to reconcile him to come back to replace Manjhi again in 2015.
And now, of course, Kumar’s conscience has outdone its previous feats and performed a sort of Produnova of political somersaults – by shedding his ‘saviour of secularism’ avatar for a return to the cozy embrace of the BJP. The serial lynchings, attacks on freedom of expression and an undeclared Emergency do not cause Nitish’s heart to miss so much as a beat.
In the wake of the heady 2015 victory, many Indians saw in Nitish and the mahagatbandhan model the only viable secular opposition to the Modi juggernaut. Nitish enthusiasts even questioned why the Left contested independently in 2015 instead of supporting the mahagatbandhan in the interests of defeating the BJP. Nitish too, perhaps seeing himself in the role of the prime ministerial candidate in 2019, began to speak of a ‘Sangh-mukt Bharat’ and to lecture other forces on the need for the opposition to unite and forge its own independent agenda rather than react to an agenda set by the BJP. But as always, he did not keep all his eggs in the ‘secular’ basket; by supporting the note ban, he kept one hand extended cautiously towards the BJP as well. And then the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh elections changed the political climate – pointing to an unprecedented hegemony enjoyed by the BJP and Modi. Now, some are blaming Nitish’s exit on the the Congress’ failure to set an inspiring alternate agenda for the opposition. The question though ought to be: What alternate opposition agenda did Nitish himself set, and how does joining hands with the BJP further any opposition agenda?
Can the country’s secular citizens afford to rely on leaders and parties with a wind vane of a “conscience” that decides whether to turn towards or away from the “secular” agenda depending on where the winds are favourable? From the United Front days, such alliances – cobbled up in the name of “defending secularism”, but comprising key leaders (such as Chandrababu Naidu or Nitish) who, overnight, discover that they can after all sup at the BJP table if it looks like it might be winning – have helped associate secularism with political opportunism in the public imagination.
Instead of being demoralised by Nitish’s shameless volte face, genuine and committed democratic and secular people of Bihar must punish him for his barefaced betrayal of the 2015 mandate. Energies of public spirited people and movements – in Bihar and across India – have to be focused on building a robust and principled resistance to each and every policy that attacks the rights of farmers, workers, women and minorities; and a sustained campaign against the climate of hate-mongering being fostered by the Sangh parivar and the BJP.
For 10 years – beginning during the Rabri Devi regime in 2003, and spanning several Nitish-led NDA and GA regimes, the Srijan Mahila Sahyog Samiti Ltd – an NGO – calmly managed to siphon off an estimated Rs 1000 crore worth of public funds into its own coffers. This amazingly blatant scam – whereby authorities like DMs themselves ordered the Bhagalpur district administration’s welfare scheme funds to be deposited in the Srijan bank account – was made possible by the proximity of its founder, the late Smt Manorama Devi, to powerful politicians like Sushil Kumar Modi and Giriraj Singh.
Sanjit Kumar, a chartered accountant based in Godda, Jharkhand, had flagged the scam in 2013 and warned Governments at Bihar and the Centre about it – to no avail, in spite of an RBI notice to the registrar of cooperative societies advising a probe. Sanjit Kuma had pointed out that Srijan had no authority to act like a bank, without permission from the RBI.
An Indian Express investigation found the scam directly affected the lives of people: “In the absence of government funds that remained parked illegally with the Srijan Mahila Vikas Sahyog Samiti, a primary health care centre in Sabour block has remained without antibiotics, an ultrasound machine and a woman doctor for years; over 150 farmers displaced due to the Pirpaiti power plant continue to wait for compensation; and over a dozen city bylanes and drains await repair and construction.”
One of the key men to be arrested, Mahesh Mandal, has died – ostensibly of cancer and kidney disease – but his death has raised the spectre of Vyapam.
According to the Bhagalpur SIT, two politicians – former state vice president of BJP Kisan Morcha Bipin Sharma and RLSP district president Deepak Verma – had a direct role in the scam. It was Bipin Sharma who introduced Manorama Devi to top politicians including Sushil Modi who was Bihar finance minister for a large part of the scam duration.
The CPI(ML) held a Bhagalpur Bandh on 19 August and statewide protests demanding the resignation of Sushil Modi, and pointing out the hollowness of Nitish Kumar’s ‘zero tolerance for corruption’ claims.