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Why is Nitish Kumar helpless?

By Satyavrat Mishra
May 23, 2016 11:29 IST
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Rampant crime challenges the chief minister's promise to maintain law and order.
But some say there are other forces at play, notes Satyavrat Mishra.

In Bihar, it seems the more things change the more they remain the same.

Six months ago, when Nitish Kumar took oath as chief minister for the fifth time, he insisted that his priorities had not changed -- he would uphold the rule of law at any cost.

Cut to the present and Kumar is battling allegations of helming a jungle raj. A spate of crimes has dented his image of 'susashan babu,' the man who was to deliver good governance.

Ten bank robberies; the murder of at least four policemen, three engineers and two state Opposition leaders; and dozens of lawmakers and their kin being named in criminal cases are all signs of deteriorating law and order in the state.

There's more: The rape of a girl allegedly by a Rashtriya Janata Dal member of the assembly, the murder of a student in Gaya allegedly by the son of a Janata Dal-United legislator and the killing of Hindustan's Siwan bureau chief Rajdeo Ranjan, in which the role of a former RJD member of Parliament is suspected.

The JD-U and the RJD are all part of the Grand Alliance, which spectacularly defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party in the assembly elections last November. Nitish Kumar belongs to the JD-U.

The BJP said 'maha jungle raj' prevailed in the state. "When lawmakers and their kin are involved in heinous crimes like rape and murder and men in uniform are not safe, how can anyone buy the chief minister's argument that Bihar is safe?" asked former deputy chief minister and senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi. 

Kumar, on his part, assured action against the guilty in the Gaya case and recommended a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into Ranjan's murder. He insisted the crime graph was sliding.

Figures, however, tell a different story. According to an IndiaSpend analysis of Bihar police data, the number of cognisable offences soared 42% between 2010 and 2015 even as the conviction rate of criminals plummeted 68% during that period.

Reason: The number of speedy trials slumped from 16,000 in 2010 to 5,000 in 2015. Last year, the state police couldn't complete investigations into more than 67% of the offences registered.

To get an idea about the poor prosecution rate of the influential and well-connected, there is the example of Rajballabh Yadav, the RJD MLA accused of raping a girl: The evidence in the case was found to be tampered with.

"Nitish Kumar has lost his grip on the government," said N K Chaudhary, former principal of Patna College. "The government has not been able to fulfil its basic responsibilities -- law and order, health and education. A couple of days ago, a bank in a busy market in Muzaffarpur was looted and the robbers escaped easily. The buck stops with the chief minister. But he seems to care more about prohibition than law and order."

Shaibal Gupta of the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna, blamed "a hostile section of the bureaucracy" for the portrayal of Bihar as a lawless state. "In 2009, the entire state machinery was with Nitish Kumar," he said. "However, since the introduction of positive discrimination at the panchayat level and the JD-U's break-up with the BJP, a small section of upper caste bureaucrats has been working to discredit the state government."

"There is no jungle raj because the state government is not protecting anyone," he said. "If there is jungle raj, how are the ongoing panchayat elections so peaceful? Has any criminal been given leeway by the leadership?"

Last week, when the chief minister was asked if crime was rising because he was more concerned about prohibition, he lost his cool.

'Let's have a debate right now,' Nitish Kumar said. 'Prohibition has brought down crime. In April, incidents of crime declined 27% due to prohibition. Kindly check the facts before asking such questions.'

'You tell me, have I ever neglected my duties?' the chief minister said. 'The rule of law is and will be my first priority. I have hardly spent 100 hours outside the state in the last couple of months and yet people are alleging that I let go of the reins of the state. Bhala yehi bhi koi baat hui? This is outright absurd.'

Such an outburst from Nitish Kumar, usually known for his composure, surprised many. "You can understand how much pressure he is under," said former Bihar director general of police D N Gautam. "His credibility is at stake. He has been trying really hard, despite that he is under fire. People are becoming fearful. What is more alarming is that hope and confidence are dwindling. Police officials are confused, therefore, their tendency to look to the executive before proceeding in any case is increasing. The slowing rate of conviction has complicated the situation."

People close to Nitish Kumar said he is aware of the situation, but is feeling helpless. "The district magistrates, superintendents of police and others senior bureaucrats are hand picked by the chief minister," a political commentator said. "If they under perform he has to bear the burden of their inaction."

"There are no quick fix solutions in policing," Gautam said. "The morale of the police force must be restored. Professionalism has to be infused. Officials have to be made responsible for their actions and inactions. The system of transfers should be transparent. All these steps will take time, but will have far-reaching effects on law and order."

There is still the present to deal with. An official of the rank of inspector general narrated an incident that took place last week in Rauxal, a town along the Indo-Nepal border. "There was a land grabbing incident," he said. "Shots were fired, a policeman was injured and a dozen men were arrested. What's astonishing is that the culprits were all from Patna and adjoining areas. They managed to travel 220 kilometres, crossing four districts and several checkpoints, with arms and ammunition without being detected."

And thereby hangs the tale of Bihar.

IMAGE: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at the Buddha Smriti Park on the occasion of Buddha Jayanti in Patna, May 21, 2016. Photograph: PTI

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