JD(U), BJP vie for political mileage even as COVID cases pile up

A rift has been seen between the alliance partners JD(U) and BJP over differences in handling the pandemic, Nitish Kumar’s restrain on ministers to visit constituencies and allegedly leaving the health minister to handle tough questions from Opposition and media

Nitish Kumar
The BJP camp is disgruntled with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for hogging the limelight for COVID measures taken by the government. Photo: PTI

The political one-upmanship, involving JD (U) and BJP, continued even when the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in Bihar as both sought to score some brownie points.

It all began with a face-off between Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and state BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal on the issue of imposition of lockdown. Jaiswal, a doctor himself, had suggested a 62-hour lockdown in the state to check the spread of the virus. He had made the demand during an all-party meet on April 17. But Nitish simply ignored his suggestions and instead his government imposed a night curfew from the next day.

Reacting sharply to the Nitish government’s decision, Jaiswal asked on Facebook. “How will the night curfew contain the pandemic?”

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“The situation reached a stage that even my close friend in Patna who is a doctor is not picking up my calls as he is unable to help. I have lost many known persons in the second wave,” Jaiswal posted on social media.

Also watch: Cattle, pigs and now waterlogging: Bihar’s health infra exposed

Not only Jaiswal, even Ram Surat Kumar, BJP leader and state revenue and land reforms minister had demanded the imposition of a complete lockdown in the state in the wake of the surge in COVID-19 cases. But Nitish remained rigid and did not accept the demands of BJP leaders. The Nitish government imposed a lockdown in the state on May 5 but not before the Patna High Court rapped the government for its failure to check the pandemic. The court stated, “Enforce a lockdown or the court will order it.”

Nitish’s ‘diktat’ that upset BJP

The next trigger for the spat between two parties came on May 23 when the Nitish government asked all ministers  to refrain from visiting COVID hospitals, COVID care centres and other such places till the state is under lockdown. The government took the decision by pleading that such tours could have an “adverse impact on the compliance of the restrictions by common citizens”.

Obviously, the decision caused consternation among BJP ministers as they were more visible on the ground.

BJP leaders including deputy chief minister Tarkishore Prasad, ministers, MPs and MLAs visited COVID hospitals, COVID care centres and community kitchens and supervised the arrangements. On the other hand, Nitish preferred spending time in fine-tuning strategy for COVID management from behind the scenes. Even JD (U) ministers, MPs and MLAs were not seen much on the ground.

Defending the government’s decision, former minister and JD (U) MLC Neeraj Kumar, said  the government has restricted the movement of ministers to check the spread of the infection. He said that any party, trying to derive any mileage from it, is itself infected by ‘political COVID’.

“Both JD (U) and BJP are working in tandem to control the pandemic and nobody should have doubt over it,” he added.

RJD general secretary and former minister Shyam Rajak said that everybody should follow the lockdown norms, but the Nitish government imposed restriction on the movement of ministers only after it got perturbed over BJP leaders becoming more visible on the ground. It only shows the ‘strained’ relationship between two ruling allies, he added.

Even BJP MLAs, MPs and ministers have expressed their annoyance over the government’s move to restrict the movement of ministers. BJP MLAs and MPs claimed that they are also being asked by the district administration not to visit hospitals and other places.

Senior BJP leader and former minister Prem Kumar said that it is the prerogative of the government to take such a decision on such matters and politics should not be done on such an issue.

BJP and JD (U) are making collective efforts to check the surge in coronavirus cases and improve the recovery rate, he added.

Attacking Nitish for the government’s decision to restrict movement of ministers, LJP spokesperson Ashraf Ansari compared the order with a ‘Tughlaqi decree’ and questioned how ministers, MLAs and MPs could be disallowed to reach out to their people when they are fighting the dreaded virus. The alliance between BJP and JD (U) is unholy and unnatural as Nitish never accepted BJP from his heart and now people of Bihar are suffering due to their strained relationship, he added.

Interestingly, LJP misses no opportunity to launch a blistering attack on the chief minister but at the same time maintains a cordial relationship with BJP.

Is Nitish trying to dodge criticism?

BJP finds itself in the dock whenever something seriously goes wrong in the health sector since the health portfolio has been held by a BJP leader ever since the NDA government was first formed in the state in 2005. RJD leader Tej Pratap Yadav had held the health portfolio for a brief period when the Grand Alliance was in power.

Nitish tries to distance himself from the criticism by confining himself to his official bungalow, stated a political analyst. On the other hand, health minister Mangal Pandey has to face the Opposition and the media as he is more visible on the ground at the time of the pandemic.

Nitish also didn’t say a word in defence of the health department when Pandey was under severe attack from the Opposition as well as the media.

Senior Congress leader Prem Chandra Mishra said that Nitish Kumar could not completely disown responsibility since he is the head of the government

The NDA government was formed in the name of Nitish and not Mangal Pandey, he remarked.

Mishra said that Nitish should explain why he did not increase the budgetary allocation for the health department adequately all these years and why his government is not inviting global tender for vaccine doses. “Nitish tries to take all credit for good work but wants to shift blame to others if any fault is found in his governance,” he added.

Nitish Kumar Vs Yogi: Who’s more proactive?

Unlike Nitish, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath believes in more on-the-spot assessment of the situation in hospitals. He keeps visiting COVID hospitals to take stock of the ground reality.

Yogi Adityanath has toured all 18 divisions in Uttar Pradesh and reviewed COVID management in 40 out of the 75 districts. He tested COVID positive on April 14 and was in home quarantine till April 30.

But Nitish has never visited any COVID hospital or any related centre ever since the second wave of the pandemic started peaking from the beginning of April.

Even in the first wave, there was a clear distinction between two leaders over the COVID pandemic management. When Yogi Adityanath had arranged special buses for migrant workers to different places of the state during the first wave last year, Nitish found fault with him, saying it would defeat the purpose of the lockdown. Nitish was not much visible on the ground even when the first wave hit the state last year.

Also read: Panic in Bihar after bodies found floating in the Ganges

Nitish’s absence from the ground, however, could not become a political tool for his adversaries as even leader of Opposition Tejaswi Yadav seems to be absent at present. He is taking care of his ailing father and RJD chief Lalu Prasad in New Delhi.

When asked about Nitish not visiting any hospital or COVID care centre, JD (U) leader Neeraj Kumar said chief minister Nitish Kumar works silently and does not believe in publicity, apparently taking a dig at BJP leaders.

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