JD(U) leader Rajiv Ranjan Singh asserts the 2020 poll results were not anti-Nitish, denies charges of political patronage in state water scheme contracts, and talks about why Prashant Kishor was let go. The session was moderated by Chief of Bureau and Political Editor RAVISH TIWARI.
RAVISH TIWARI: Can you elaborate on the churn that is underway within the JD(U)? Upendra Kushwaha was inducted into the party and appointed chairman of the JD(U)’s National Parliamentary Board. Also, the JD(U) joined the NDA government, which it was unsure about earlier. Is there confusion within the party?
No, there is no confusion. These are just efforts to expand the party. (Kushwaha’s) Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) merged with the JD(U). (Kushwaha) should not be considered new to the party, he was part of the creation of the Samta Party in 1994 by George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar.
As far as the decision to join the government goes, there has been no confusion about it… As president of the party, Nitish Kumar had taken a decision in 2019, and then a decision was taken in 2021. So it is the party’s decision.
RAVISH TIWARI: The Bihar BJP has the same number of MPs as your party. There are two Cabinet ministers and two Ministers of State from the Bihar BJP in the Union government, while you settled for just one Cabinet minister. There would have been some compulsions from within the party to join the government?
There were no compulsions. The BJP has a majority, and there is a fixed number of Cabinet ministers that the government can have. It is their prerogative to decide how many people they choose to make ministers from each state.
RAVISH TIWARI: How do you read the results of the 2020 Bihar Assembly elections?
The Vidhan Sabha results of 2020 were messed up because of many reasons. In many places we may have faulted in candidate selection. There may have been some sabotage within. We believe that there was a conspiracy against Nitish Kumar from all quarters and the results were a reflection of that. But even in that adverse situation we managed to get seats and that shows that people support us.
RAVISH TIWARI: So did the BJP conspire against the JD(U)?
There were many sections… But let bygones be bygones. We are focusing on the future… Chirag Paswan put up candidates against ours. They also put up candidates against the BJP. There were some people who were possible BJP candidates, they became (Paswan’s) Lok Janshakti Party candidates. All this added up.
RAVISH TIWARI: So it wasn’t a vote against Nitish Kumar’s governance?
No. In the 2019 general elections, (the NDA) got 39 of the state’s 40 seats. If the 2020 vote was against Nitish Kumar’s governance, then the 2019 results should have also reflected that. Nitish Kumar has people’s support now, he had it in the 2020 Assembly polls, and it has increased.
RAVISH TIWARI: But 2019 was a vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The 2020 vote was for Nitish Kumar…
So the NDA got the votes. Who is leading the NDA (in Bihar)? During the 2020 polls, it was clear that Nitish Kumar would continue as Chief Minister. So if people did not want Nitish Kumar, the NDA would not have got a majority… There were some circumstances (that led to the 2020 results) and our party was unaware of them.
RAVISH TIWARI: Why has the JD(U) backed the demand for a caste census, putting the BJP in a spot?
The demand for a caste census is not new. Nitish Kumar had raised the issue when V P Singh was the prime minister. But Singh said that work on the (main) Census had already begun and so it could not be done. Now that a Census is about to be conducted, we raised the issue. The last caste census was conducted in 1931 during British rule… If we consider the claims made by communities, then the total population of the country should be 390 crore instead of the stated 130 crore! That is why it is important to know the exact number of people from each community based on a caste census. It will also help in formulating policy to help the country’s downtrodden sections. So no one has anything to lose from it.
LIZ MATHEW: Compared to your peers in the JD(U), you have always been considered much closer to the BJP. But since you have taken charge as party president, the JD(U) has been taking on the ruling party over caste census, flood relief, Jal Jeevan Mission. Is this a sign of any future political realignment?
No, that is not correct. I have always had good relations with everyone. We took on Lalu Prasad over the fodder scam, but that did not ruin my personal relationship with him. There was no bitterness. My commitment is to the JD(U)… I have good relationships with everyone in the BJP. But it is about the policies and views of my party, I move ahead with that in mind… There is no question of any future realignment, we are a strong partner of the NDA. But that does not mean we will not have our own views on policy matters. We had opposed the triple talaq Bill in the Lok Sabha, Article 370… But we have been with the NDA, and now we are a part of the government too. It is hypothetical to assume any future realignment.
LIZ MATHEW: The JD(U) has always been opposed to Chirag Paswan. But now he is cosying up to the Opposition, which may hurt the NDA. Are you ready to forgive him?
is not for us to forgive him. They have no MLA in the Bihar NDA, so where is the question of including him in the Bihar NDA? In the Lok Sabha also, he is alone in his party, five of his people have left. We believe they left because of his stubbornness during the Bihar elections. They say he behaved that way because of certain advisors. His father Ram Vilas Paswan was a grassroots leader. Chirag Paswan did not face any struggle. He was airdropped, and then he became an MP. He had no understanding of the ground realities.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: Has the JD(U) given up on its demand for special status for Bihar? Also, in Uttar Pradesh elections next year, will the JD(U) contest polls in eastern UP, and will it do so under the NDA umbrella?
The Finance Commission report said that instead of special status, the backward states should be given a package. We are discussing the package. There is no issue of special status, no state is getting it now. We are focusing on the backwardness of our state now… Since 2005, our growth rate has been in double digits. If you see pre-2005 Bihar, there was no electricity, no law, poor education, the business of abductions was flourishing, and there were no roads. Today, we have roads, electricity… Now we are saying that if we could manage all this with our own resources, then imagine the growth that can happen in the state with a (financial) package.
As far as elections go, we have decided that if there is consensus on seats in UP and Manipur under the NDA, we will fight polls from the two states… But if there is no consensus, then we will identify seats and contest polls on our own in these two states.
VANDITA MISHRA: Some time ago, the JD(U) had talked about a coordination committee in the NDA. You talked about the issues your party has, its convictions, but is there any hearing given to them — Article 370, CAA or farm laws?
Which coalition has a coordination committee… except maybe in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time? There can be informal discussions too… there is not much of a difference… About the farm laws, we think that the legislation that has been enacted is for the benefit of farmers… they have the freedom to sell their produce anywhere. Bihar too had APMCs (Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees), and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar abolished the same in 2006. Both the production of our farmers and the money they get it for it has gone up…
As for the rest of the issues, we had concerns, we have registered the same.
RITIKA CHOPRA: In several states in which your ally BJP has a government, people have been arrested, faced sedition charges, for differing with it, including activists, journalists etc. One doesn’t hear of such arrests from Bihar.
Bihar doesn’t have any such issue, people have full freedom to say what they want against the government… How can I talk about other states and the situation there?… This is an issue of democratic rights… We emerged from the 1974 agitation, we hit the streets for the freedom of the country, against the Emergency, took physical blows, went to jail even. So we are firmly of the belief that the press is the fourth pillar of a democracy.
RAVISH TIWARI: But you just said you would have no issues fighting under Yogi Adityanath’s leadership in Uttar Pradesh, which proudly proclaims its strong-arm tactics.
It’s up to the janata of UP to decide who it wants as its leader, not you or me.
RINKU GHOSH: Your party leader K C Tyagi recently called Nitish Kumar prime minister material.
Tyagiji’s statement should be seen in the right light. He said Nitishji is PM ‘material’, as in he has the abilities needed to run the country. There is a world of difference between being able to be PM and laying claim to be PM or being a PM contender… There are many examples to show why Tyagiji or other JD(U) leaders talk of him being PM-worthy. In 2015, the Nitish Kumar government launched the Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal scheme, under which we have spent Rs 27,000 crore to get drinking water to wards; the Centre adopted this as Jal Jeevan Mission in 2019. It was Nitishji’s vision that the Centre adopted. Then, providing electricity to every household… it was a promise by Nitishji during the Bihar elections of 2015. By October 2018, power connection had reached every home, and now even rural areas have 20-22 hours of electricity a day. Similarly, the Centre adopted this in 2017… So when we say Nitishji is PM material, we are talking about his vision.
SANTOSH SINGH: The Indian Express has carried a series of investigative reports on the political patronage in contract allotments for Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal.
Our party has a big structure, we have nothing to do with the business of party leaders and workers. In any case, there is a system of e-tendering which cannot be managed. It cannot be known which person is taking part in the tendering process from where. But we have a business cell in the party. There is nothing wrong in party workers doing business.
SANTOSH SINGH: Among those who got the contracts were BJP leader and Deputy CM Tarkishore Prasad’s kin and aides.
He (Prasad) has explained his position.
LIZ MATHEW: You worked with the BJP under Vajpayee too. What’s the difference compared to the Modi-led BJP? And does the current BJP take its allies along in significant decisions?
Yes, there are consultations, with leaders of the party, and there are agreements as well as disagreements, for example on Article 370 or triple talaq. But they got in touch with us on both. We express our opinion based on our stand.
There is a crucial difference from the time of Vajpayeeji. The BJP did not have a majority on its own then. Now, it has. So it takes the decisions and then consults its allies.
RAVISH TIWARI: When do these consultations take place, half-an-hour earlier or a week earlier?
In several matters, the talks take place one day, two days earlier.
RAVISH TIWARI: You have listed the achievements of the JD(U) government. But many of these were in Nitish Kumar’s previous term, and despite this, in 2020, he performed worse. What is his vision for this new term?
We have been working continuously… During the pandemic, around 24-25 lakh migrants working in other states came back. Nitish Kumar did a lot of work for them — set up centres, quarantined those who tested positive… But governance was never affected… whether selecting school headmasters, building roads, medical colleges, infrastructure for nurses… Work hasn’t stopped.
RAVISH TIWARI: The BJP seems to be the dominant partner in the alliance. Has there ever been an instance when the JD(U) has stood firm on something and the BJP has agreed to it?
We objected to the NRC (National Register of Citizens). When they said there would be such a survey, we objected… Work on the NRC may have been paused because of the pandemic, but whenever it happens, our stand will remain the same.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: In his Independence Day speech, the PM said the Centre’s Jal Jeevan Mission has taken water connections to 4.5 crore households, most of them in Bihar. Sanjay Jha, a minister in your government, said only 8.5 lakh connections in Bihar are under Jal Jeevan Mission and the rest are part of your Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal. What does this tell you about the current level of political discourse, where governments exaggerate their work to look good?
Sanjay Jha said the right thing, Nitish Kumar started the scheme in 2015… Anyone can make claims… we can only tell you the truth.
RAVISH TIWARI: How do you see the Centre’s handling of the second Covid wave?
Nobody imagined the second wave to hit the way it did. And because nobody anticipated it, nobody was prepared for it. But when the crisis hit and there was a shortage of several things like oxygen, remdesivir etc, the Central government worked on a war-footing to ensure that these essentials reached people.
RAVISH TIWARI: Why was Prashant Kishor let go from the JD(U)?
He was saying different things, was associated with different parties. It’s not right to then hold a party post. If I, as party president, think I am everything, that won’t work. Work should happen according to the democratic process within the party.
SANDEEP SINGH: The JD(U) has been in and out of the NDA. With Opposition parties attempting to come together, has anyone got in touch with you?
We are not in touch with anyone. We are in the NDA… there’s no confusion.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: The Pegasus issue stalled the Monsoon Session of Parliament. What is your party’s stand on it? Are you in favour of a parliamentary committee or a Supreme Court-monitored probe?
The matter is in the Supreme Court… But no fact has come out on Pegasus. It’s curious that the day before the House session, Pegasus comes out… Where is the evidence? The Congress has no agenda and finds itself taking up unnecessary issues. This is not politics… That’s why the Congress is shrinking. Look at what’s happening in Punjab.
RAVISH TIWARI: What turn do you see Opposition politics taking by 2024?
Like I said, the Congress is shrinking. It will shrink even more.