From sop opera to welfare schemes, Nitish gears up for 2019 Lok Sabha polls

Nitish Kumar has announced several schemes to woo minorities, EBCs, Maha-Dalits and women.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, in the past 20 days, has inaugurated welfare schemes, laid foundation stones of projects and announced sops for contractual employees working in government. Most importantly, he also changed the draconian prohibition law of Bihar, watering down several of its penal provisions and introducing bail for violators.

Is Kumar gearing up for the 2019 general election?  The announcements are focused on winning back the seemingly waning support of backward communities, particularly the extremely backward castes (EBCs), Maha-Dalits, minorities and women.

However, the Janata Dal (United) terms these “responsibilities of a welfare state”. 

The inaugurations began on July 27, when the chief minister launched a special drive to give impetus to the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana in Bihar. He said the state government would give incentives for meeting deadlines and prepare a fresh list of beneficiaries before September 30 as many of them had been left out of the Caste and Socio-Economic Census, 2011.

Bihar is one of the worst performers in the scheme. It could construct only 32,000 houses by March 31 against a target of 2 million in FY18. As a result, the central government refused to give a fresh target and additional funds in the current fiscal year.

Kumar has also launched projects worth millions for rural electrification in the state. The scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs), EBCs, minorities and women, however, have been the focus of these schemes. Incidentally these sections constitute Nitish Kumar’s core vote bank.

Last week he launched sops for students belonging to STs-SCs, other backward classes (OBCs), EBCs and minorities. Under this scheme, these students will get a monthly assistance of Rs1,000 along with 15 kg of food grains. The state government will also provide a one-time assistance of Rs 100,000 to each student belonging to STs-SCs, EBCs, OBCs and backward Muslims who clear the UPSC preliminary exam to prepare for the main exam and interview. Similarly, they will get Rs50,000 if they qualify in the Bihar Public Service Commission preliminary exam.

“The youth from backward Muslim communities such as the Julahas and Tantis will get assistance,” Janata Dal (United) lawmaker and party Spokesperson Neeraj Kumar.

The state government, earlier this month, launched the Anusuchit Jati evam Anusuchit Janjati Udyami Yojana (SC-ST Entrepreneurship Scheme). Under this scheme, the state government will train the youths of weaker sections and provide an assistance of Rs1 million to help them establish enterprises.

According to political analysts, these move are aimed at the general election. “He wants a commanding position in the alliance before the election. For this he needs to strengthen his vote base,” an analyst said.

The party, however, refuses to accept this. “We believe in development with justice. The schemes of our government are focused on benefitting the last man on the state. Students, entrepreneurs and the youth from weaker sections of society need to be promoted... Workers need to have job security. These are all part of good governance and duties of the government of a welfare state. There is no politics in this,” said Neeraj Kumar.

A JD(U) leader made it more succinct. “The prohibition and the BJP’s alienation from the Dalits and OBCs have hurt our support base among the Maha-Dalits, EBCs and women voters. This is more than evident in by-election results earlier this year. The margin of the defeats astonished us. The party understands the urgency of the issue and is trying everything to win back the support of our voters.” 

The Bihar chief minister has created a vote-bank of Maha-Dalits, EBCs and women in the past 13 years of his rule. The combination of these voters helped him beat the RJD in 2009 (Lok Sabha elections) and 2010 (assembly elections) and even helped him stop the BJP juggernaut in 2015. To keep allies in check and beat the possible Congress-RJD alliance in 2019, he needs these voters.

However, there are few takers for this. “Many people are demanding changes in the prohibition law. The poor and the downtrodden faced the brunt of this law, but the Kumar didn’t change it. However, he has changed his stand just months before the general election. Isn’t this convenience?” asked an official of the excise department.

NK Chaudhary, former head of economics, Patna University, said: “The good law and order situation, for which his (Nitish Kumar’s) government was known, has gone.  The Dalits, EBCs, minorities and women are unhappy with his government."

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