Bihar CM has pledged to make state free of dowry, child marriage but BJP believes move not paying poll dividend, wants him to stick to caste arithmetic.
Patna: Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar appears to have positioned himself as a social reformer, pledging to make the state free of dowry and child marriage, while playing up his Prohibition decision.
The chief minister’s emphasis on social issues is particularly aimed at women voters in the state.
“Without social reforms, development becomes meaningless,” Nitish told a TV channel Tuesday. “The poor used to spend their hard-earned money on liquor that used to lead to domestic strife, now there is peace and harmony in homes.”
The chief minister’s focus on social issues, however, has made ally BJP wary of the strategy. For one, the saffron outfit believes it hasn’t resulted in electoral gains on the ground.
Since the 2016 decision to impose Prohibition, candidates from Nitish’s JD(U) have lost all three bypolls held in the state — two assembly and one Parliamentary.
“Social reforms have a transitory impact,” former Union minister and the BJP’s Dalit face in Bihar, Sanjay Paswan, told ThePrint. “Unfortunately, it’s caste that has a more lasting impact. But I am sure there are sections in society who support the CM’s social reforms.”
The BJP is all the more worried as it has bent over backwards to accommodate Nitish this time around. The party shunted out former allies — Jitan Ram Manjhi-led Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and the Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) — who were opposed to Nitish.
It has also agreed to share the Lok Sabha seats equally. The BJP and the JD(U) are set to now set to contest on 17 Lok Sabha seats each, despite the fact that the BJP won 22 of the 40 seats in 2014 and the JD(U) just two.
“It is a different Nitish Kumar than the one we had an alliance with before 2013. That Nitish, along with social development, cobbled up an impressive caste combination of EBCs and a section of Dalits — the Mahadalits,” a Bihar BJP leader said.
“The current Nitish talks more on social reforms even though Brand Nitish has taken a beating on account of law and order, corruption and scandals such as the Muzaffarpur shelter sexual abuse case,” the leader said.
“Nitish should revert to his old self, instead of just speaking about social reforms as it has not led to votes.”
Pro-women image takes a beating
All of the chief minister’s social reforms have been aimed at reinforcing the support he has received from women in the past elections. But social activists say that it may not be the case this time around.
“Nitish got the support of women for the steps he took during his first tenure — cycles and uniforms for girls studying in government schools, 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayat and local bodies and a quota in government jobs,” said Nivedita Shakeel, an activist based in Patna.
“In 2010, women did queue up to vote for him. But there has now been a spurt in crime against women, especially minor girls. There has been no social or economic empowerment of women. The state government has even stopped bringing out the gender budget.”
The state has also not had much success in eliminating dowry and child marriage despite a concerted campaign against it.
“The drive against dowry and child marriage is still considered a sarkari (government) programme with very little acceptance,” said a government official in the social welfare department.
Will Prohibition come back to bite the CM?
The most debated of Nitish’s decisions in the state is the imposition of Prohibition.
Introduced in 2016, it has not only resulted in the loss of over Rs 4,000 crore in annual excise revenue, but left 15,000, working in liquor shops, jobless and has hit the hotel industry hard.
Worse, by the government’s own admission, 1.61 lakh people had been arrested for violating provisions of the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016.
“Not even during the infamous Emergency were so many people arrested in Bihar. Nitish has brought a police raj through the Act,” said RJD national vice-president Shivanand Tiwari.
The RJD, which supported the liquor ban, has now declared that it will scrap the law if voted to power.
A majority of those arrested are either poor Dalits or come from extremely backward castes — sections that had once stood solidly behind Nitish. “Most of the arrested were from the labour classes and, by flinging them into jail, the government ended up financially starving their families,” Tiwari said.
Experts have also questioned the wisdom of relying on the police to implement the law.
“There used to be no money for the police in liquor. Now there is. It has hit the law and order of the state, another field that impacts women,” said former DGP of the state D.P. Ojha.
“The Nitish Kumar who was in power between 2005 and 2010 was known as the person who delivers — there were better roads, hospitals, schools and law and order,” said a JD(U) minister who did not want to be named.
“The present Nitish is still performing — there is better availability of power, tap water in villages and student loans for the poor. It’s this performer that people of Bihar want to see, not the social reformer.”