Nitish finds BJP isn't in his corner as he fights for political relevance

CM Nitish Kumar is under attack from ally BJP since floods in large parts of Patna. Even his deputy Sushil Kumar Modi had to be rescued. But BJP President Amit Shah has called a truce, declaring the Assembly polls would be contested under Kumar’s lea
In the last days of September, heavy rain flooded Patna and 12 other districts in Bihar. Power supply was cut off in several areas. The situation became worse when the city’s drainage and sewerage collapsed. More than 40 people died. 

Days earlier, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had assured people that the state machinery was prepared to face any situation. He went to Gandhi Setu on September 19 to inspect the rising water level in the Ganga. “I have asked officials to be alert. Nobody knows what would happen tomorrow,” Kumar told the media. 

However, the state government admitted nobody was alert. The Patna Municipal Corporation (PMC) didn’t have a clue about its sewerage system. It said in court it didn’t even have a map of the city sewerage network and an account of the money spent on drainage pipes. 

The Bihar Urban Development Corporation (BUDCO), which is in charge of constructing drainage and sewerage systems in Patna, too failed at every level. Its sump houses were not working and many areas in Patna are still under water even after more than 14 days of the rain.

Almost 1,000 cases of dengue have been reported in Patna, but the state health department is not accepting it as an epidemic. 

As the picture of the administration’s unpreparedness started emerging, the chief minister was at the receiving end of the criticism for a second time this year. In June, he and his government were criticised for children's deaths due to acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) in Muzaffarpur. 

The first shot, surprisingly, came from the BJP. Union minister Giriraj Singh chided the government for its “inept” handling of unprecedented water-logging in Patna. “Nitish Kumar and Sushil Modi (deputy chief minister) are responsible for what happened in Patna. If there was a forecast and warning by the Met, why didn’t officials take steps? Stern action must be taken against them,” Singh told Indo-Asian News Service. 

Other BJP leaders and legislators joined him in this. The chief minister responded by not inviting them to a high-level meeting to discuss the situation in Patna. The matter came to such a point that BJP leaders boycotted the Dussehra celebrations at Gandhi Maidan in Patna.

Then came Nitish Kumar’s outburst at the media. “In how many parts of the country and across the world have there been floods? What happened in Mumbai? Look at America. Is water in some parts of Patna the only problem we have?” he snapped at a woman reporter earlier this month. 

This unexpected reaction from a usually composed person grabbed headlines. “This shows the level of pressure on him. It took years for him to create a development narrative around himself. The past few months have really been stressful. Instead of opposition, Kumar was facing more bickering from alliance partners for ‘bad governance’. His leadership is being questioned by people not even half his stature. I would say this was bound to happen,” said a senior politician. 

The JD (U)’s second line went on the offensive. Quoting Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood, Water Resources Minister and JD (U) National General Secretary Sanjay Jha tweeted, “It would have been better had people not to make ‘snide’ remarks on Ganga, but presented our case before the Central government... Please cooperate, don’t cause cacophony.” 

He also attacked Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union minister and MP from Patna Sahib, for his claim that “all 119 gates” of the Farakka Barrage had been opened. “As far as I know Farakka has 109 gates. Wonder when the rest of them were constructed,” he said.

A truce was finally called by the BJP leadership earlier this week, when its executive president, J P Nadda, put a gag on party leaders. They were “asked not to get involved in any type of bickering” with allies. 

BJP President Amit Shah on Thursday ended all speculation and declared that the elections, scheduled later next year, would be contested “under the leadership of Nitish Kumar”. 

Calm seems to have been restored. However, it will be not like the earlier times. “We could have done better alone this time. The top leadership, however, has made up its mind. But the honeymoon is over. People are breathing down Nitish Kumar’s neck,” a BJP leader said.

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