Muzaffarpur: Nitish Kumar under attack from both friends and enemies

Facing attacks from the Opposition and his own NDA allies after a JD(U) minister’s name has been linked to the Muzaffarpur shelter home mass rapes, Nitish Kumar attempts damage control

PTI Photo
PTI Photo

Soroor Ahmed

He took many days to speak up and claim he was ashamed at the rape of 34 of 44 minors in a state government-funded shelter home for girls in Muzaffarpur, but Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was very quick to speak when it came to defending his party Janata Dal (United)’s social welfare minister Manju Verma.

Under attack from all sides over the alleged links of Verma’s husband with the Muzaffarpur horror, Nitish was forced to call a press conference in Patna on Monday, August 6. “Jo paap karega, woh bachega nahi,” (whoever has sinned will not be saved). “If someone related to the Minister is involved, they won't be spared,” Nitish grandiosely declared on Monday. However, he was also quick to add, “But why is this issue being raised only now. We had called her and she denied any involvement. How is it justified to level baseless allegations?”

Media reports say Verma’s husband Chandrasekhar Verma has been accused of frequently visiting the shelter home and spending "long hours in the girls' room". “On July 26, Manju had dubbed the allegations levelled against her husband as 'baseless' and said, "Wife of one of the accused, who was arrested, is making baseless allegations after a month. My husband accompanied me to the shelter home in 2016. We never visited the shelter home afterward,"” reported Business Standard.

The horrendous incidents at the Muzaffarpur balika grih (shelter home for girls), and reports that the alleged perpetrators are reportedly close to Nitish—a photo of main accused Brajesh Thakur along with Nitish and senior Bihar Bharatiya Janata Party leader and Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi has gone viral in Bihar—have dealt a big political blow to Nitish, and he is now in overdrive, trying to restrict the damage. Earlier on Monday, ANI reported that Nitish Kumar had directed all district magistrates to inspect all child shelter homes and women shelter homes in the state. Nitish also declared that the investigation into the heinous crime, already referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation, is being monitored by the Patna High Court.

The revelation of the crime and these links uncomfortably close to him, has not only given a big stick to Nitish’s political rivals to beat him with, it has also provided an opportunity to many within the National Democratic Alliance, of which his JD(U) is a part, to cut him to size. Earlier, on August 4, senior Congress leader P Chidambaram had demanded Manju Verma’s resignation “because it is the Social Welfare Department which has administrative responsibility for shelter homes". However, the latest demands for Verma’s resignation have come from senior leaders of his own ally, BJP. Former Union minister Dr CP Thakur said Verma should resign on moral grounds. On Monday, BJP Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar Gopal Narayan Singh speaking outside Parliament, considerably raised the stakes. “Since their names (Manju Verma and her husband) have appeared during investigation she should've resigned for an impartial investigation. Nitish ji should also tell her to stay suspended until all investigations are done,” ANI quoted Singh as saying.

The Muzaffarpur episode provided Opposition parties an opportunity to display their unity at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Saturday, August 4. Leaders of a dozen parties including Congress President Rahul Gandhi, AAP supremo and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and CPI (M) secretary general Sitaram Yechury turned up at the call of Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, Leader of Opposition in the Bihar assembly, to demand justice for the victims of Muzaffarpur and Nitish Kumar’s resignation. RJD MP Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav again raised the issue of Muzaffarpur rapes in the Lok Sabha on Monday, alleging, “The girls where played with, like toys. The evidences are being tampered. There is direct involvement of the state government.”

Nitish is becoming an increasingly toxic political brand after the exposure of the Muzaffarpur horror, and this has virtually closed the door for any possible re-entry of Nitish into the RJD-Congress-HAM Grand Alliance. Thus, he has lost all his political bargaining power and is virtually at the mercy of the BJP now.

The famously stubborn Nitish, however, is digging his heels in. He is not only refusing to quit his post, he has not even sought the resignation of Manju Verma, conceding only that if she is found involved, “she may go”. What a contrast of the image he sought to project over a year ago, when he broke his relationship with the Grand Alliance and switched over to the National Democratic Alliance, on the plea that the then deputy chief minister Tejashwi Prasad Yadav had not explained his position after a decade-old corruption charge was levelled against him.

Even ardent supporters of Nitish Kumar are finding it extremely difficult to defend his minister’s alleged connections with, and his officials’ alleged role in, the shelter home rape case, as never since independence have 34 minor girls had to undergo such horrible sexual abuse in a state government-funded shelter home.

Besides BJP leaders, other NDA allies including Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party have also trained their guns on Nitish. But it is Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party’s woman MP, Veena Devi, who has come down most heavily on the Bihar Chief Minister. The open attack as well as murmuring from within the NDA and his own party’s rank-and-file is causing more unease to Nitish than the Opposition’s August 4 protest in Delhi.

There is near unanimity among people cutting across party lines in Bihar that the Muzaffarpur incident has shattered the assiduously crafted image of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. A year ago, he occupied the moral high ground and washed his hands off Tejashwi Yadav. What will he do now when his own name and that of his own party’s minister is being dragged into the case?

The reported heckling and beating of three reporters belonging to Republic TV, Times Now and India Today news channels in Patna by Verma’s security guards have further aggravated the situation. This incident took place in that very programme on August 3 at which Nitish Kumar finally spoke about the Muzaffarpur incident, saying he felt ashamed.

Till recently, the media in Bihar has not been giving due coverage to this sensational story. Save for one regional channel, no other channel and newspaper initially pursued the case. The attack on reporters of the national channels which are considered close to the BJP, proved counter-productive. The photo of the main accused Brajesh Thakur, whose NGO was running the shelter home, with Nitish Kumar and his deputy Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP has gone viral. This has landed both these leaders in an indefensible position. Modi however, defended Verma even more vigorously on Monday than even her own party leader Nitish, asserting that there was no need for the resignation of Verma or any other minister in the aftermath of the Muzaffarpur shelter home scandal "just because some people are giving statements".

There is near unanimity among people cutting across party lines in Bihar that the Muzaffarpur incident has shattered the assiduously crafted image of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. A year ago, he occupied the moral high ground and washed his hands off Tejashwi Yadav. What will he do now when his own name and that of his own party’s minister is being dragged into the case? Will Nitish Kumar somehow survive politically yet again, is the question occupying many minds in Patna.

Inputs by NH Political Bureau and agencies

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