Nitish Kumar faces backlash over remarks in the aftermath of the Chhapra hooch tragedy. Pressure is also mounting from ally RJD for the JD(U) chief to make way for Deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is set to launch another statewide yatra on 5 January from the Bhitiharwa Gandhi Ashram in West Champaran.
The ashram, set up by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917, has been Nitish’s preferred choice for a starting point for his yatras since the 2005 Nyay Yatra he undertook to protest the dissolution of the fractured assembly that led to fresh elections in the state, paving the road for his ascent to power.
The 71-year-old Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), chief has since traversed the state as part of over a dozen yatras, with themes ranging from ‘progress’ and ‘thanks’ to ‘migration’ and ‘rights’. The most recent one, the ‘Samaj Sudhar Abhiyan Yatra’, was held in December 2021, to highlight prohibition’s benefits and create awareness against dowry and child marriage.
Set to be around the same themes, the yatra, which will begin next week, will be Nitish’s first mass outreach programme since he walked out of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) last August, and since his party’s loss to the BJP in the Kurhani assembly bypoll in December.
“Nitish uses yatras like a pressure cooker releasing steam. Interacting with the masses is always useful even when you get heckled and taunted. It lets off people’s anger against you,” said former Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) MP Vijay Krishna who defeated Nitish in Barh constituency in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.
While the yatra is expected to be a ‘JD(U)-show’, Nitish’s Mahagathbandhan allies — the RJD, among others — are yet to air their views on it in public. But political circles in Bihar are abuzz with the speculation that Nitish might use the foot march to try and give a new direction to the state’s political discourse. Yet again.
It might also be an attempt by Nitish to tame the backlash over his controversial “those who drink alcohol will die” remark delivered in the aftermath of the Chhapra hooch tragedy, which claimed over 70 lives.
Moreover, pressure is mounting from ally RJD for Nitish to gracefully exit and hand over the reins of power in the state to Deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav. In December last year, the JD(U) chief had announced that the Mahagathbandhan will contest the 2025 Bihar elections under the leadership of the RJD scion.
Former head of the economics department at Patna University, N.K. Choudhary, told ThePrint, “Nitish is fighting the toughest political battle of his life. He is the CM but his governance model is under attack and his political strength has waned after remaining in power for almost 18 years.”
According to the BJP, though, Nitish’s yatras are “staged” and even JD(U) ministers are becoming weary about such marches.
Speaking to ThePrint, a JD(U) minister said on condition of anonymity, “It almost seems that whenever the CM gets bored sitting in Patna, he undertakes a yatra which allows him to get away from pressures of the capital for a few days.”
“The only benefit is that the government buildings he visits get whitewashed and the district administration is on its toes while he is there,” he added.
‘Very little interaction with the masses’
Much has changed since Nitish was mobbed by supporters when he had embarked on his first statewide yatra in 2005. Back then, he even made officials give out their phone numbers from the stage during public meetings. But his yatras have become increasingly bureaucratic over the years.
Recalling his experiences with the JD(U) chief during his time in Nitish’s cabinet, BJP’s Samrat Choudhary, told ThePrint, “I have been with Nitish Kumar when I was a minister. There is very little interaction with the masses. He only meets local officials and party workers. A majority of the crowd consists of didis (members of self-help groups) and Asha workers who get financial support from the government. The whole show is staged.”
Choudhary, who is also Leader of the Opposition in the Bihar Legislative Council, claimed officials “select” the route for Nitish’s visits. “Everything there, roads, water supply, and other infrastructure is put in order. After the visit, the whole infrastructure returns to normal. It no longer generates political support. It only angers the people who feel cheated,” he said.
The announcement for Nitish’s statewide yatra came on the heels of former aide Prashant Kishor’s remarks about witnessing anger among the masses against Nitish during his padyatra across West Champaran. Kishor even dared Nitish to visit any village in Bihar without security.
Flanked by government machinery, Nitish now plans to visit villages as part of his yatra set to begin later this week. But many in Bihar are now asking whether his yatra will reap any electoral fruit or act as a pressure valve, releasing the anger simmering against his government at the grassroots.