The new ‘Agnipath’ recruitment scheme for soldiers into the Indian armed forces has emerged as the latest point of serious discord between Bihar’s ruling allies--the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)].
The JD(U) had publicly opposed the new recruitment scheme and called for its review even as largescale violent protests rocked Bihar.
JD(U) president Rajiv Ranjan Singh had tweeted in the midst of the widespread violence in Bihar: “Due to the decision of launching Agnipath scheme, sense of dissatisfaction, despair and bleak future (unemployment) is clearly visible in the minds of the youth and students of the country, including Bihar”.
Singh demanded that the union government “should immediately reconsider the Agnipath scheme because this decision is also related to the defence and security of the country”.
Nitish Kumar did nothing to stop the protestors who set trains on fire, ransacked and looted railway stations and even attacked and vandalised residences of senior BJP leaders including Deputy Chief Minister Renu Devi (read this).
Angry BJP leaders in Bihar questioned Nitish Kumar’s silence over the protests and attacks on BJP leaders by ‘Agnipath’ protestors. Many wondered if the JD(U) was silently encouraging the protests and attacks on railway properties as well as BJP leaders.
The inaction of the Bihar police--the home portfolio is held by Nitish Kumar--in taking action against the riotous mobs and preventing attacks on BJP leaders and their residences as well as BJP party offices was construed by the BJP as Nitish Kumar’s endorsement of the violent protests and triggered a war of words between the two allies.
The discord over ‘Agnipath’ has only intensified now with the JD(U) virtually siding with the opposition gathbandhan (alliance)--Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Congress and the Left parties--which has been disrupting the proceedings of the monsoon session of the Bihar Legislative Assembly that commenced Monday (27 June).
In an unprecedented move, the JD(U)--in what many construe as a show of solidarity with the mahagathbandhan--boycotted the post-lunch session of the Assembly on Tuesday (28 June) when the House was to take up for discussion the criteria for selection of a candidate for the ‘best legislator’ award. The award has been proposed by Speaker Vijay Kumar Sinha.
There is, it must be mentioned here, no love lost between Nitish Kumar and Speaker Sinha. The two had an ugly spat inside the Assembly in March this year over a police probe into alleged misbehaviour by three police officers with the Speaker. Kumar had angrily objected to the matter being raised in the House repeatedly.
The post-lunch session of the Assembly saw empty opposition benches and, apart from BJP legislators, only a skeletal presence of JD(U) MLAs. The opposition had disrupted the proceedings of the House as soon as it assembled in the morning.
RJD, Congress and Left MLAs had trooped to the well of the House and shouted slogans against the ‘Agnipath’ recruitment scheme and demanded a discussion on it. They also want a resolution to be introduced in the House against the scheme. The JD(U) has been silent on this demand.
Due to the disruptions, the Speaker had adjourned the proceedings till noon. As soon as the House assembled after lunch, BJP legislator Sanjay Saraogi started speaking on the criterion for selecting the ‘best legislator’. But JD(U) MLA Rajkumar interjected and pointed out that the House lacked quorum.
As if on cue, five other JD(U) legislators, including a couple of ministers, who were present in the House made their way out. The Speaker adjourned the House for the day with the lament that the discussion on the ‘best legislator’ award could not take place despite the matter being agreed upon at the business advisory committee meeting.
But it was not the topic of discussion--the criterion for choosing the ‘best legislator’--that was important. BJP leaders told Swarajya that by staying away from the House and snubbing the Speaker, as well as its ally (the BJP), the JD(U) had virtually expressed solidarity with the opposition parties over their demand for a rollback of the ‘Agnipath’ scheme.
“We are the major partner in the alliance and it is because of large heartedness that Nitish Kumar is being allowed to continue as the Chief Minister. He should stick to ‘coalition dharma’ and act in tandem with us,” said a senior BJP leader who has often been very critical of Nitish Kumar.
Another BJP leader, who is also a Minister, said that the abstention from House proceedings by JD(U) legislators on Tuesday was an act of brinkmanship. “It happened with the express consent of the Chief Minister. He (Nitish Kumar) is testing our patience. This is not the way to keep the coalition intact,” the Minister, who did not want to be named, told Swarajya from Patna.
BJP leaders say that the JD(U) would be very happy if the Speaker allows a discussion on ‘Agnipath’ and the Opposition introduces a motion condemning the new recruitment scheme. “Nitish Kumar would be happy to embarrass us and Prime Minister Modi,” said the Bihar Minister.
The JD(U)’s abstention from the Assembly in the post-lunch session on Tuesday has angered the BJP and caused a sharp rift in the ruling alliance.
The JD(U)’s act of brinkmanship inside the House stood in sharp contrast to the ‘cordial’ meeting between Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and Nitish Kumar in Patna on Tuesday.
The ostensible reason for Padhan to fly down to Patna to meet Kumar was to seek the latter’s support for NDA Presidential candidate Draupadi Murmu. But the two, say sources in both the BJP and JD(U), did discuss the ties between the two allies. Both reportedly agreed on the need to keep the coalition intact.
Tuesday's was the second meeting in two months between Kumar and Pradhan, who is likely to replace Union Labour Minister Bhupendra Yadav as the BJP’s Bihar in-charge. They had also met on 7 May and discussed contentious issues that have created rifts between the two allies.
After the 20-minute-long meeting with Kumar on Tuesday, Pradhan said there was no discord between the two allies and different parties were free to express their divergent views in a democracy. He also quashed speculation in some quarters that the BJP wants to replace Nitish Kumar as the chief minister and asserted that Kumar will remain in the post till the next Assembly polls in 2025.
But BJP leaders in Bihar say that Nitish Kumar is playing a sinister game. “He is telling our central leaders that he will always remain in the NDA, but in Bihar his actions imply he is out to embarrass us. The inaction of the state police, which is under him, in presenting violent protests and his party siding with the opposition on ‘Agnipath’ is proof of the diabolical game Nitish Kumar is playing,” said the BJP Minister.
The Minister pointed out that only (Union Minister) Pradhan met Kumar. “Our state president (Dr Sanjay Jaiswal) and Nityanand Rai (Union Minister of state for home affairs and a Lok Sabha MP from Bihar) accompanied Pradhan till the gates of Kumar’s residence but did not enter and returned from there. That says a lot about the current state of ties between us (the BJP and JD-U),” he said.
But the two allies are not likely to call it quits, at least for now. Many political compulsions stand in the way of either party quitting the alliance.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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