On July 16, a bridge collapse news was met with relief from the Bihar government after it became clear what collapsed was an approach road to the bridge and not the bridge Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had inaugurated on June 16. The sigh of relief signalled it is fine for old approach roads to collapse because, well, they are not new.
Just about a week later, it appears Bihar is collapsing and that the man responsible for rescuing Bihar is interested in protecting neither the state nor his political legacy. No chief minister has looked so strikingly missing in action in the wake of the pandemic as the one in Bihar. This, when no other state faces an election this year.
Has Kumar drowned his political ambitions in the floodwaters or does he hope to sail through, piggybacking on Narendra Modi’s popularity? The answer could lie somewhere in between. Bihar is currently facing the double whammy of floods ravaging the state and surging cases of coronavirus. The floods are not new; the intensity is, and so is the pandemic.
And while the pandemic is new, in Bihar the spike has been delayed. Unlike Maharashtra, Delhi and Gujarat that got hit in April itself, Bihar had the breathing room to put in place the infrastructure needed to contain the spread. It seems Kumar was breathing easy all through that period. It is possible he still is.
A Lancet study published on July 17 marks Bihar as the most vulnerable state, next only to Madhya Pradesh in India. But Bihar’s problems are the greatest because its health infrastructure is the worst in India.
With a population of nearly 13 crore, Kumar’s Bihar has just 2,792 allopathic doctors. According to the World Health Organisation, there should be one doctor for 1,000 people. In Bihar, one allopathic doctor is supposed to serve 43,788 people. The national doctor to population ratio is 1:1,800.
No healthcare system in any country was prepared enough for this pandemic, nor was any state in India. But with a doctor to patient ratio of 1:43,788, Bihar had no health infrastructure prepared for anything.
The state currently has over 28,500 positive cases. The active cases, which experts count as the actual case load, are 9,624. These numbers hide everything, including what Nitish Kumar is doing to rescue Bihar.
India is testing over 3,00,000 people per day now. Delhi, with less than a quarter of Bihar’s population, conducts 4,500 tests for 1 lakh people. Bihar tests only 300 per 1 lakh people. So, it’s not like Nitish Kumar is not doing anything. He is sitting and cooking a recipe for disaster.
To spoil his broth, the Centre has sent a three-member team to Bihar. The team’s work is not only compounded by the fact that there is a lack of doctors, but also because there is a lack of hospitals. So far, only two Covid-dedicated hospitals exist in the state.
The obvious question of why haven’t the private hospitals been roped in offers the even more obvious answer – kushashan. Over four months into the pandemic, the government has failed to formulate a framework to get private hospitals on board.
Horror met apathy when it was found that in Patna's Nalanda Medical College and Hospital, the largest government-run facility in Bihar, the body of a Covid-19 victim kept lying on a hospital bed for over 24 hours.
— manish (@manishndtv) July 20, 2020
On Wednesday, a patient died outside the same hospital, waiting for a bed.
शायद इनकी चीख़ो से जाग जाए बिहार सरकार की ‘अंतरात्मा’? पटना के NMCH अस्पताल में घंटो तक भरती के इंतज़ार के बाद #Corona सन्दिग्ध ने दम तोड़ दिया। 1:30 pm @aajtak #BiharNeedsHelp #BiharFightsCorona pic.twitter.com/6B9JikQifl— Ankit Tyagi (@Ankit_Tyagi01) July 22, 2020
The severity of the pandemic seems to have completely missed Kumar.
In late June, Kumar wrote a letter to Narendra Modi. That letter forgot to demand central help for the crisis awaiting Bihar because the letter had a more important issue at hand – vulgarity on OTT platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Having successfully banned the legal sale of liquor in the state, unleashing the liquor mafia, Kumar appears convinced that the road that could take him back to power is based on dictating to people how to live their lives, which is subject to the condition that the pandemic spares them their lives.
As for the pandemic, Kumar thought his job was done after he allocated Rs 1,000 each for the migrants returning home. He may have taken time to open quarantine centres for migrants making their way back, but Kumar showed unprecedented promptness in having them closed. The warning was clear: migrants returning home could inadvertently be carrying the virus and yet Kumar gave up on their screening even before he started it.
The Centre stands accused of stopping trains without thinking about the migrants, while Kumar stands to be blamed for not even demanding that arrangements be made to send them home. BJP leaders may not have the room to make open demands, but then Kumar is no BJP leader.
It would take efforts for some to remember that Nitish is not a BJP man, given how easily he has allowed BJP to appear as the party in-charge in Bihar.
There is no doubt that Kumar dragged Bihar out of a morass that the then Lalu Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) threw the state into. When the Bihar government presented its 14th Economic Survey 2019-20, with an average of over 10% growth, the state had registered higher growth than the growth rate of India in the three years preceding. Roads are better and people do not rush to take cover inside their houses post sundown.
But by setting Bihar on an autopilot in an election year, Kumar could slowly but surely be pushing his political fortunes into the same morass.
In Maharashtra, Shiv Sena was traditionally the bigger partner. So BJP played along, letting them enjoy the larger share of the pie but steadily building base to stand on its own feet. Have firmed up its ground, the party stood up to Shiv Sena when the time was right; for BJP, that is.
Modi was more than eager to swallow his pride to forge an alliance with Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) after being snubbed by Kumar on several occasions. Right under Kumar’s nose now, the Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut is pulling the Mahadalits and the non-Yadav OBCs who have propelled Kumar to the chair, towards the BJP. JD(U)’s vote bank is shifting to BJP on the back of Modi’s popularity and Kumar taking backstage is only propelling the shift.
This isn’t the first election where questions are being raised on the whereabouts of Kumar. In 2014, when gathbandhans and mahagatbandhans were being formed, it seemed JD(U) and BJP were party. It is okay to forge an alliance, but even in the mahagatbandhan, individual ambitions were hard to miss. The NDA alliance had a seat-sharing formula under which BJP and JDU contested on 17 seats each, while Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) fielded candidates on 6 seats. The NDA won 39 seats together with JD(U) losing one to Congress. That election was won on Modi’s name.
The BJP has made it clear it will fight the upcoming election under Kumar’s leadership. Kumar it seems has decided to fight it on Modi’s popularity, if not under his direct leadership. But before the polls there is the pandemic. And Kumar has so far handled it pathetically.