26 November, 2020

Poll Sop: Nitish Kumar’s Standard Operating Procedure

It’s raining projects in Bihar ahead of three-phase assembly elections

Ticket to Ride
PM Narendra Modi virtually inaugurates the Kosi Mahasetu
Photograph by PTI
Poll Sop: Nitish Kumar’s Standard Operating Procedure

Eighty-six years after a devastating earthquake demolished a British-era railway bridge to cut off Mithilanchal in Bihar’s north with the Kosi belt in the east, train services have resumed to reunite the two culturally-rich regions of the state. Thanks to Kosi Mahasetu—a new bridge over Tilyuga, a tributary of Kosi—the distance between the two areas separated by the 1934 earthquake has been reduced by about 275 km. Built at the cost of Rs 516 crore, the bridge is nothing short of a dream-come-true for lakhs of people on both sides of the river who share similar culture and language. Unsurprisingly, the NDA is tom-tomming the “big achievement” going into the October-November assembly elections in Bihar.

With chief minister Nitish Kumar hoping for his fourth consecutive victory, the bridge replacing the one built in 1886 is being touted as an epitome of the “development-centric politics” pursued by the NDA government led by him. It was in 2003 that then Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had laid the foundation stone for the bridge when Nitish was the railway minister at the Centre. Seventeen years later, it has been inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when Nitish happens to be the chief minister. “Many areas of Bihar rem­ained cut off for decades because of the rivers and people had to travel long distances. But with determination and an ally like Nitish Kumar, what is not possible? Kosi Mahasetu is an example of that,” Modi said while flagging off the first train on the new bridge via video conference on September 18.

The bridge, however, is just one of many aces which Nitish has up his sleeves before he hits the campaign trail for the elections, scheduled to be held in three phases on October 28, November 3 and November 7. As the chief ministerial candidate of the JD(U)-BJP coalition, he has an impressive line-up of big-ticket projects to showcase his performance in his bid to return to power.

Among the NDA government’s high-profile development initiatives, work has already started on the much-awaited Metro rail connectivity in Patna, while long-neglected Darbhanga is in for a double delight: an airport ready to take off and a new All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) expected to come up in less than four years.

In the run-up to the polls, the Nitish government, in sync with the Centre, has loosened the purse strings to shower pre-poll bounties like never before. By the time, the Election Commission ann­ounced the election schedule and the model code of conduct came into force on September 25, they seemed to have done a full course by doling out largesse worth more than Rs 93,010 crore to woo the electorate.

Big projects, big dreams

The newly-inaugurated bus terminus in Patna.

Photograph by Sonu Kishan

In the past few weeks, the chief minister has either inaugurated or launched projects worth Rs 72,309 crore while Modi has gifted central schemes worth Rs 18,701 crore to the state. Besides, Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari has also dedicated projects worth Rs 1,742 crore. Of these, the 13,365-crore Patna Metro being developed by Delhi Metro Rail Corporation happens to be the most ambitious launched by the JD(U)-BJP government, known as the “Double Engine Ki Sarkar” (twin-engine government). According to Nitish, the 32.49 km-long project will be completed in five years, but trains on at least one route will start running in three years. The Centre and the state will bear 20 per cent each of the total cost while loans will be taken from the Japan International Cooperation Agency for the remaining 60 per cent.

By approving a new AIIMS in Darbhanga, a long-standing demand of the people has also been fulfilled. The Union Cabinet recently gave its nod to the Rs 1,264-crore project under the Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Yojana. Bihar already has an AIIMS in Patna but people from north Bihar have to travel afar for treatment of serious ailments. The new AIIMS will have 100 MBBS seats, 60 BSc (nursing) seats, besides 15-20 super-specialty departments and 750 beds.  

Nitish Kumar is consolidating his position as the vikash purush Bihar needs.

The announcement of a new AIIMS coincided with the commissioning of a new airport at Darbhanga. On November 8, Spice Jet is set to launch its first flights from Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, putting an end to a seemingly endless wait. There has been a huge rush to book flights to and from Darbhanga ever since bookings opened recently. Needless to say, it is considered to be another feather in the NDA government’s cap.    

An inter-state bus terminal (ISBT) with state-of-the-art facilities such as lifts and escalators has already been ina­ugurated by Nitish in the state capital. Spread over 25 acre in Patna, it is being touted as the biggest in the country with a capacity to handle 1.5 lakh passengers a day.

Besides, there are many other upcoming projects that will benefit a large population in the long run. A 14-km-long, four-lane bridge worth Rs 1,794.37 crore across the Ganga along the existing Gandhi Setu between Patna and Hajipur is exp­ected to be completed in three-and-a-half years. The government has also announced three new medical colleges in Sitamarhi, Siwan and Vaishali districts, which will cost Rs 1,636 crore.

Political observers believe that big projects like AIIMS, airport and bus terminus will go a long way in consolidating Nitish’s position as a vikash purush (development man) in a state which remains at the lowest rung in terms of infrastructure. “Nitish has played his development card well in successive elections,” says political commentator N.K. Choudhary. “It has paid off so far, but he has never banked solely on it. There are other factors, including a weak Opposition and caste equations, which have contributed to his victories.”  

The Opposition, however, remains unimpressed with Nitish’s development claims. RJD leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav says that Bihar did not get a special category status in 2014 and nothing happened after the ann­ouncement of a Rs 1.25 lakh-crore package for the state by the PM in 2015 “Now, only a re-packaging is being done ahead of the polls,” he says.

The leader of Opposition in Bihar says that a Rs 263-crore bridge in the state was washed away only 29 days after its inauguration while an approach road to a Rs 509-crore bridge met a similar fate only a day before its inauguration. He asserts that the Nitish government has failed on all counts, especially in creating job opportunities and tackling the Covid pandemic. “If our government comes to power, we will offer 10 lakh government jobs,” he says. “It will be the first file that we will sign on.”

Deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi has hit back, saying that the people questioning the PM’s package for Bihar should reveal as to what happened to the Rs 5,700-crore package announced for Bihar by then Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. “In 53 years after Independence, only four bridges were built across the Ganga, but the NDA has launched 17 bridge projects,” he says. “The Congress-RJD government built only one bridge on the Kosi river; the NDA government has built six.”

Nitish, on his part, claims that he has fulfilled whatever he has promised during his tenure. “Whatever we have done is visible everywhere,” he says. “If people of Bihar give us another mandate this time, we will continue to serve them bec­ause serving people is our dharma.” He will have to wait till November 10, when counting  of votes takes place, to know if he gets another chance to serve Bihar on his development agenda.

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