NAGPUR, Maharashtra — When a brand-new bridge in Bihar collapsed a month after it was inaugurated by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, one voice stood out in the chorus of criticism directed at the state government: Chirag Paswan, whose Lok Janshakti Party is part of Bihar’s ruling alliance.
This isn’t the first time that Paswan, who has now taken over the post of the LJP president from his father Ram Vilas Paswan, has criticised his own government.
In March this year, Paswan said the law and order situation in the state has deteriorated compared to Nitish Kumar’s first term in office. Then in April Paswan criticised the state government for not providing a list of new ration card beneficiaries to the Union government. Junior Paswan’s comments came after his father Ram Vilas, who is the union food and consumer affairs minister said that there were 1.45 million people in Bihar who stood to lose their rations because the state government had not forwarded a list of beneficiaries to the centre.
Earlier this month, the LJP chief also removed Munger district president of his party Raghvendra Bharti when Bharti issued a statement saying that the NDA in Bihar was “intact”.
With elections in Bihar less than four months away, political observers say Paswan’s frequent utterances mark the first round of pre-poll jostling for a bigger slice of the post-election spoils.
It has not gone unnoticed that Paswan has scrupulously avoided targeting the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is now clearly seen as the alliance’s power player. Paswan’s LJP also doesn’t have a single representative in Nitish Kumar’s cabinet.
Till last year, Paswan’s uncle and the then LJP’s Bihar unit chief Pashupati Kumar Paras was the animal and fisheries resources minister in the Nitish Kumar cabinet, but Paras had to give up his post when he was elected to Lok Sabha from Hajipur. Nitish Kumar did not replace Paras with another LJP representative which did not go down well with this Dalit centric party of Bihar.
Meanwhile, representatives of Nitish’s Janata Dal United (JDU) appeared unmoved by Paswan’s manoeuvres.
“This tussle is expected and imminent before the election everywhere where there is an alliance,” said a senior JDU member on the condition of anonymity. “Jitan Ram Manjhi is using the same tactics to corner more seats from Mahagathbandhan and Chirag is doing the same in the NDA.”
The Paswans, the JDU leader said, were eying 40 of the Bihar assembly’s 243 seats — a large enough chunk to play kingmakers in case of a close election. “But the Chief Minister doesn’t seem to be in the mood to cede much to LJP,” the leader said.
Paswan has also called for the upcoming elections to be postponed in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — a position recently echoed by principal opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and opposed by Nitish’s camp.
JDU member and Bihar’s minister for information and public relations Neeraj Kumar told HuffPost India that it was for the Election Commission to decide on the timing of the elections.
“There was an all-party meeting a month ago with the election commission. No party in that meeting said that there should not be an election,” Kumar said. “Every party was allowed to put forth its views and we stated that there should be a one-day election.”
When asked about Chirag Paswan’s criticism of the Nitish Kumar government, Kumar said, “ See, we perform our duties. We don’t think much of it. We have brought about a village centric development in Bihar and people understand it.”
“The BJP has made it clear that Nitish Kumar will be the chief ministerial candidate of the NDA. There is no problem with regards to leadership or policy and there is no confusion,” Kumar said, declining to comment on Paswan’s recent criticism of the government.
The opposition, in the meantime, has spotted an opportunity to fish in what they hope are troubled waters.
The RJD vice president Shivanand Tiwari noted that his party and the LJP had worked together before.
“LJP and RJD have been in alliance in the past. And if it happens it won’t be a new alliance,” Tiwari said. “Lalu Prasad Yadav was the one to send Ram Vilas Paswan to Rajya Sabha when he lost the Lok Sabha election. It’s not that they are unknown to others. If the time comes, why would we deny working with them?”
Tiwari conceded that Paswan could simply be bargaining for more influence within the JDU-LJP-BJP alliance. “But everything is in the air now,” Tiwari said.
On the RJD’s official position with regard to the election, he said, “I am not sure if the election will be held or not because the corona is increasing rapidly. I don’t think there will a situation to conduct an election when the time comes. I seriously doubt if the elections will happen. If there is an election using virtual means, the JDU and BJP are likely to benefit because they have the resources and government machinery. We are saying that the election should not be conducted in the pandemic but we have not said that we will boycott it. If there is an election it should be conducted traditionally then not virtually.”