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Lalu Yadav may blink first but can Nitish be blamed?

Nitish Kumar cannot be blamed for seizing the opportunity to see the back of Tejaswi Yadav. The Deputy CM and his father, unfortunately, tried the Bihar chief minister’s patience long enough

Photo by AP Dube/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by AP Dube/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

NR Mohanty

As the election process to choose the next President of India gets out of the way on Monday, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav will possibly make a last ditch effort to find a way out of the current brinkmanship they are engaged in. Nitish no doubt has the upper hand in this political battle; he would certainly like to make the most of the current situation to weaken Lalu Yadav’s grip over power so that as chief minister he has complete command over the administration.

This has not been exactly the situation before the current crisis unfolded. There were several occasions when Lalu Yadav’s sons (both are cabinet ministers; in fact, the younger one is the deputy chief minister of the state) had acted as autonomous power centres owing allegiance to only their father as the supreme political leader of the state.

Tej Pratap Yadav (the elder son of Lalu who holds several portfolios including health) has often been seen going around inspecting hospitals accompanied by his father. On all such occasions, the normally reticent Tej Pratap let all the talking to be done by his voluble father.

There were a series of media reports about Lalu admonishing the officials and threatening them with punishment if they did not mend their ways. Questions were raised if Lalu Yadav, who is not even an MP or an MLA (in fact, who has been disqualified from contesting elections due to his conviction in the fodder scam), could at all take government officials to task, let alone publicly, just because he was the father of the minister concerned. Lalu Yadav had, time and again, justified his action saying that he was doing so in the larger interest of the people of Bihar. As a matter of fact, many hospital authorities believed that it was Lalu’s writ, not Nitish’s, that ran over the health department in Bihar.

The same has been the case, more or less, in most of the departments held by the RJD ministers (as a matter of fact, the RJD ministers hold many plum portfolios including finance and public works department).

Nitish Kumar knows very well that his grip over the departments held by Lalu’s men are tenuous at best. Nothing could be a better reflection of this than the incident that involved Tejaswi Yadav, the younger son of Lalu and the deputy chief minister who also holds the portfolio of the public works department (PWD). The PWD had undertaken the task of the construction of a 4.56 kilometre long bridge (the road section of Digha-Sonepur-rail- cum-road bridge) that would serve as a link between Patna and north Bihar.

This is an alternative to the 5.5 kilometre long Gandhi Setu which has been, for decades, the only viable link to connect the state capital with the rest of Bihar across the Ganga. The alternative was necessary as Gandhi Setu, constructed in 1982, was on the verge of collapse and, as per expert opinion, was beyond repair and rehabilitation. The only way out was the complete dismantling of the structure and re-building it with modern technology.

The original Gandhi Setu was built with Central government’s support and was inaugurated by Indira Gandhi. The estimated cost of the reconstruction is ₹1742 crore and it may as well exceed ₹2000 crore. It is hanging fire for some time now.

Lalu Yadav must be given the credit for mooting the idea of the rail-cum- road bridge as the alternative to Gandhi Setu when he was the Railway minister. It was supposed to be the necessary link while the Gandhi Setu was to be closed for renovation work. But, as is often the reality, neither the rail project nor the road project could take off when Lalu Yadav was the Railway minister and his wife was the chief minister of Bihar.

The road bridge was sanctioned in 2010 when Nitish Kumar was the chief minister. The rail bridge was inaugurated by Narendra Modi in March this year, with Suresh Prabhu, the current railway minister, accompanying him. Lalu Yadav was not even invited to the function. The road bridge had come to be executed under the watch of Tejaswi Yadav, the current PWD minister. While doing an inspection of the progress of the project work in April this year, the minister suddenly announced that the work had to be fast tracked to ensure that the road was dedicated to the public on June 11, his father’s birthday.

All hell broke loose as to why the inauguration of such an important project should coincide with Lalu Yadav’s birthday? Many raised a question as to why the project, a part of which was to be named after Jayaprakash Narayan, should not be inaugurated on October 11, JP’s birthday? After all, they argued, the project was never going to be completed by June for public use.

Many then expected Nitish Kumar to put his foot down on the declaration of June 11 as the date of inauguration of the bridge. The question was: would Nitish publicly join issue with his deputy, especially when it involved taking cudgels with Lalu Yadav’s supporters on their leader’s birthday? There was also the question: if Nitish did not agree with the June 11 date but Tejaswi went ahead with it (the RJD leaders had given hints that there would be no compromise on the date), then was Nitish in a position to sack him?

Some expected that Nitish would, at least, stay away from such brazen display of power by Lalu clan that blurred the distinction between personal and political. But Nitish played his cards well; he wished to be there in the limelight when the important project that was commissioned during his earlier stint as the chief minister (with BJP as the alliance partner) was being inaugurated. Moreover, he did not want to create a political crisis and stake his government’s existence over an issue of political propriety.

But it was certain that Nitish was looking for an opportune moment to get at Tejaswi. After all, the latter had published several newspaper advertisements highlighting achievements of his departments; many of these advertisements displayed life-size photographs of Tejaswi, but without any mention of Nitish Kumar or the customary photograph of the chief minister. The JD (U) leaders had raised the issue every time such advertisement appeared, but it seemed that Nitish Kumar was not in a position to rein in Tejaswi Yadav.

Nitish clearly waited, like a wounded tiger, for his opportunity to take revenge. The opportunity presented itself when the Modi government decided to set the state investigative agencies against its arch enemy, Lalu and his family. A lot of skeletons tumbled out; the CBI, the income tax department and the Enforcement

Directorate presented a detailed report on ill-gotten wealth acquired by Lalu Yadav and his family. The courts will decide the authenticity of the charges.

But Nitish grasped this opportunity to see the back of Tejaswi; he knew that his firm stance on the issue would enhance his political profile as an anti-corruption crusader; he also hoped that his insistence on Tejaswi’s ouster would not topple the government, as Lalu Yadav, the uncompromising crusader against the Sangh Parivar, needs the cushion of the state power to fob off the shennanigans of the central government now controlled by the BJP.

Nitish kumar has no doubt resorted to a game of brinkmanship to assert his authority. It is quite possible that a vulnerable Lalu will blink for now and retreat for the time being to fight a bigger battle another day.

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