Battle for Bihar: Covid, Migrant Crisis Give Ammo to Young Guns Tejashwi and Chirag to Take Aim at Nitish
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses an election meeting, at Raghunathpur consistency in Siwan district on October 20, 2020. (PTI Photo)
Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) president Nitish Kumar is eyeing an enviable fourth term in the state. He is pitted against Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s chief ministerial face, the 30-year-old Tejashwi Yadav. Lalu Yadav’s son served as the deputy chief minister in the Nitish cabinet till 2017 for about two years. Nitish Kumar broke away from the newly formed alliance with his bête noire Lalu that had secured a thumping victory in 2015 and went back to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). This facilitated Nitish Kumar to continue as the chief minister, but Lalu’s children lost power despite winning the maximum number of seats in the 2015 assembly polls.
2019 was a particularly bad year for the RJD. With Lalu Yadav languishing in jail since December 2017, his party drew a blank in last year's Lok Sabha elections in the state. It was said the RJD could not do anything without Lalu’s charisma and Tejashwi was inexperienced.
Lalu Yadav is still in jail and the 2020 assembly elections could well be the last opportunity for Tejashwi to emerge from his father’s shadow and establish himself as a political force in Bihar.
37-year-old Chirag Paswan is also looking for his own political identity in the state after the demise of his father Ram Vilas Paswan. His Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), part of the NDA, had won 6 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But he has decided to go solo in the assembly elections and has walked out of the NDA in Bihar.
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It seems the Covid-19 crisis in Bihar has provided the two young leaders with a fighting chance: for Tejashwi, to prove his political mettle, and for Chirag, to save his party and to establish his name. Many critics say the Nitish Kumar government has not been able handle the pandemic situation well and both Tejashwi and Chirag would love to cash in on it.
Nationally, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the unemployment rate touched a high of 23.5% in April and the Indian economy shrank by 23.9% in the first quarter because of the lockdown clamped to curb the coronavirus spread.
Migrant workers were the worst hit: they became jobless and most had no places to stay. They were forced to return home and find a new way to earn a living, if possible, in local farmlands or depend on government programmes like Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), and they knew it would not last long. Daily wage workers, hawkers and small traders were hit hard. CMIE said this category lost 91.2 million jobs in April alone.
Union labour and employment minister Santosh Gangwar said last month that over one crore migrants headed home during the lockdown period, many of them by foot. The minister added that the maximum number of migrants returned to their homes in Uttar Pradesh, over 32 lakh, followed by Bihar, which saw the return of 15 lakh migrant workers. 13 lakh migrant workers returned to West Bengal.
But according to many other estimates, over three million Bihari migrant workers returned home. The homecoming of migrant workers in such large numbers can easily affect the electoral process anywhere and Bihar is no exception.
The central government's Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan (GKRA) was launched on June 20 and 32 districts, out of the 116 selected nationally, were from Bihar. Rs 50,000 crore was to be spent during 125 days in the districts in six states with the maximum number of returned migrant workers to help them with livelihood options like MGNREGS.
According to an estimate, till October 16, Rs 33,378 crore was spent in the scheme with Bihar cornering 28% of the share based on the maximum number of districts selected.
Bihar has already used over 91% of Rs 2,886 crore in the first April-June quarter itself and it had just 8.45% left. The result, many workers did not receive wages as the second quarter ended with a negative balance of Rs 159 crore. According to the report, GKRA fund was not used for MGNREGS in districts selected for GKRA to fill the shortfall.
The rationale behind allocating a particular amount for different welfare schemes after the Covid-19 pandemic is unclear. But if we go by the official number that around 15 lakh migrant workers returned to Bihar (other reports quote figures as high as 32 lakh), the amount allocated is bound to disappoint people who are already jobless.
According to the People's Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG) NREGA Tracker and MGNREGS data, Bihar issued over 13 lakh MGNREGS job cards between April 1 and October 15, yet only 4,551 families could complete 100 days of MGNREGS work. PAEG adds that the Bihar government claims to have provided employment to 34 lakh households. Under MGNREGS, an adult member of a rural household is given 100 days of paid employment every financial year.
And these 32 lakh migrant workers may represent a population base of around 1 crore people in Bihar if we include their family members. They would form a significant portion of the registered 7.29 crore voters in the state.
The post-Covid unemployment rate rose to 46.6% in April in Bihar as per CMIE data. Another data by the agency mapped how Bihar ended up with an unemployment rate twice the national rate, at 10.2% in the year ended in June 2019. The national rate was 5.8%. Add to it the millions of migrants workers who returned home. The state still has an unemployment rate of 11.9%. The RJD has promised to create one million jobs if it forms the government.