We can’t allow Covid-19 pandemic to hold democracy to ransom: Sanjay Jha

The upcoming assembly election in Bihar, which is expected to take place on schedule in October-November, despite the nation-wide raging coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak, is not a game of T20 cricket, but a five-day classical test match to be led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, said Sanjay Jha, state minister for water resources department, and national general secretary of the ruling Janata Dal (United), JD(U).

In an interview to HT, Jha spoke about why elections in the state should be held on schedule; the quibbles within the National Democratic Alliance partners such as the JD(U) and the Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP) and how the state government is confident of returning to power, despite the twin challenges such as the unprecedented Covid-19 outbreak and annual flood woes. Excerpts from the interview:

Your party is an NDA ally. Yet, there seems to be a lack of cohesion on issues such as the election schedule and earlier about the state government’s stance on bringing back migrant workers during the Covid-19-triggered lockdown restrictions? The LJP has been singling out your party.

We are in close and constant communication with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). I can say with confidence that we are clear in our thinking that a sacrosanct democratic exercise such as election is always above political parties and politics. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has the mandate to decide on the poll schedule, and we will abide by its decision.

That said, we are equally convinced that holding the election as close to the stipulated schedule will only bolster efforts being made on all fronts at national and global levels to overcome the Covid-19 impact and resume normal functioning of the public from all walks of life.

With regard to the perceived differences on the issue of bringing back migrant workers and even students, the situation must be viewed in its extraordinary context. In keeping with the central government directive of lockdown norms, CM Kumar was the first one to respond. In fact, Bihar had the blueprint ready for our stranded people. In one of his first directives immediately after allocating Rs 150 crore from the CM’s Relief Fund to fight the pandemic, he had instructed officials on April 2 to remit Rs 1,000 directly to the bank accounts of stranded Bihari workers.

Later, when Delhi and other states allowed massive exodus of migrant people, all arrangements were made such as ensuring trains from all over the country to putting in place a robust testing mechanism, isolation, and quarantine facilities to providing last-mile support to help them return to their native villages. In the case of students, too, our continuing concern has been about their health and well-being, as they were away from their homes. Eventually, we made special arrangements for getting them back home safely.

In this backdrop — and this is a small example — I wonder why anyone would target us? These are difficult times, as we face the double whammy of Covid-19 and annual flood woes. We would rather focus on our primary dharma of addressing people’s concerns than respond to shallow, meaningless political barbs!

What about the LJP’s remarks?

Time and again the BJP top brass has stated that the election will be fought under the leadership of CM Kumar and that should end all speculation.

Several parties want elections deferred owning to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, the state is also struggling with the floods. Did the NDA partners hold talks on these issues?

There is a global consensus that life needs to go on, and we must learn to live with Covid-19. Haven’t we started opening up the economy? Haven’t we rolled out trains, domestic flights, transport services, and opened markets? We must not allow Covid-19 to hold democracy to ransom. The naysayers and apologists would continue to sulk and sully the state’s pride, as it suits their agenda. The Covid-19 bogey is being raised by the perennial naysayers, who are faced with the fear of the inevitable — an imminent defeat in the coming assembly elections.

Let me also give some more facts because they pertain to my ministry, the water resources department. Floods are not unique to us. Across the globe, millions face this nature’s wrath every year. The issue is not flooding, but its management. Bihar government has been responding to the situation of the overflowing rivers with incredible alacrity. I am pleased to share that our teams have successfully deployed new tools, including Artificial Intelligence and modern early warning systems, in a bid to ensure an effective yet timely response.

While flood is a global phenomenon, our ability to respond to the crisis and ensure low fatalities are at par and among the best. Our trenchant critics must have noted that each of the flood-affected families is getting a one-time relief of Rs 6,000 within a week.

Apart from the state of economy and jobs, there are two issues that will stand out in the forthcoming elections — the response to the pandemic and the migrant workers, who returned to the state during the lockdown. Do you think the government has given a good account of these challenges?

Our response to the pandemic has been the most comprehensive, innovative, and diligent. Even as many states were struggling about how to respond, the Bihar government on the CM’s instructions set up 52 relief centres across 12 cities in the country that distributed cooked and packed foods to millions of people. We set up a 60-line state helpline, and by end-April, we had ensured affirmative action for over 2.5 million people. At present, third-party credible data showed that the pandemic situation in Bihar is under control. Our case fatality rate (CFR) is 0.5%, which is among the lowest in the country in the context of a state with a similar population and our viral caseload per million is 1,049.

Our reaction was careful and judicious as far as the migrant crisis was concerned. Around 35 lakh people returned to Bihar. We were the first state in the country to have done the skill mapping of all the workers and developed a framework for engaging them productively. After mapping the skills and creating a database of workers, we also started to work on deploying them through district-level workers’ advisory centres. We reviewed the Bihar Industrial Investment Promotion Policy to create a more enabling environment in a bid to attract more industries to the state. During the lockdown, 5.43 crore human days of work were created across 4.46 lakh government schemes. The Central government, too, is helping us in this exercise through some interventions including an application developed by Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC), an autonomous body under the Department of Science and Technology.

Bihar has a sizeable Muslim population and there is a perception that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, and the proposed National Register for Citizens (NRC) will have a bearing on the election outcome. The AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen) has also thrown its hat in the ring. Will it be an advantage mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) in such a scenario?

Muslims have been integral to CM Kumar’s politics and governance for all these years. The community has enormous faith in him, and any theory to the contrary is poor imagination and cheap thrills of fantasy. In all his social welfare schemes since 2005, the Muslim community has been an equal beneficiary – as our model of nyay ke saath vikas symbolises. We have stood for inclusive growth, with a special focus on the minorities and backward and extremely-backward classes.

CM Kumar’s regime has been free of even a sprinkle of communal tension. In his 15 years’ rule, I can vividly recall, only in one town, we had to impose curfew and that, too, only for a few hours. Isn’t that an achievement, especially in a state with a long history of communal riots? He has also ensured speedy justice for all the victims of past riots. He instituted a special commission to get justice for the victims of Bhagalpur and other riots.

What issues and achievements will the state government seek re-election on?

The metamorphosis of Bihar: from a state ravaged by crime, plundered by a clique comprising politicians and bureaucrats, punctuated as BIMARU, and punctured by the apathy of the ruling elite, their naked nepotism and favoritism to a state that stands for nyay (justice), vikas (development), and pragati (progress). CM Kumar inherited a plundered legacy of 55 years, and he had to first reckon with addressing the fundamental issues of what I call RASTRA –roti, ashmita (dignity), samanta (equity), tathasta (indifference of governance), roads and adhikar (rights).

Our CM is a visionary leader, who thinks ahead of time. He has addressed all these issues on a priority basis.

We shall go to voters with facts. At present, 7.39 crore people, or 60% of Bihar’s population, are covered under the state’s food security programme. We issued 23.39 new ration cards during the Covid-19 crisis. CM Kumar was clear that the basic necessities of people must be taken care of. Pucca roads, uninterrupted electricity and piped water reaching all households are among his many achievements.

Significantly, we have broken stereotypes. Now, girls ride bicycles, women head panchayats, and availing government services is no longer a drudgery. Prohibition has brought about a qualitative change in family lives. Jeevika is a silent revolution unfolding across our tiny villages, whose reverberations will not be felt unless you see it. The awakening of half of our population, our womenfolk, has taken place during CM Kumar’s rule. Unsurprisingly, women have vouched for and stood by him through successive elections.

We are at the threshold of a new era, where Bihar yearns for an exalted identity, affirmation, and equity. And who better to deliver on this other than the one who crafted and steered the phenomenal turnaround, and the new Bihari pride! Our CM, of course! In 2020, we are not into a game of T20, but a classical Test match. The slog overs start now, with our CM as the captain!

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