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The Larger Political Meaning of Nitish Kumar’s Yatra in Gandhi’s Land

The Larger Political Meaning of Nitish Kumar’s Yatra in Gandhi’s Land

Champaran: As is tradition, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has begun his yatra from the state’s Champaran region, the land of the historic satyagraha launched by Mahatma Gandhi against British rule over 100 years ago. Kumar’s yatra is an apparent bid to set the larger political agenda ahead of the assembly elections next year.

The central issue of his current yatra is the threat posed by climate change and global warming to the environment and the need to conserve greenery and water. He has aptly named this sojourn, which began on December 4, the “Jal-Jeevan-Hariyali Yatra’ (water-life-greenery tour). The first phase will terminate on Friday, when he will return to Patna and begin the second phase to other parts of the state.

“What is the relationship between an assembly election and a yatra on the issue of climate change?” a Delhi-based senior BJP leader asked me in a somewhat sarcastic manner. The question may seem appropriate to someone who doesn’t have a good understanding of Nitish’s politics.

But a close and methodical understanding of the JD(U) chief’s political operations brings to the fore that the ‘shrewd’ and ‘calculative’ chief minister has begun this yatra to achieve multiple political goals. The yatra also serves the purpose of “exposing” his ally BJP’s “tunnel headed” approach to perpetuate emotive issues and keep the society divided for its political ends.

Champaran has been the karmabhoomi of Mahatma Gandhi. The BJP MP from Bhopal, Pragya Thakur, recently praised Gandhi’s assassin, Naturam Godse, as a deshbhakt (patriot). It is obvious that the core of the RSS-BJP is opposed to the Gandhian ideology rooted in gram swaraj, equality, social harmony, amity and justice. The ‘mission’ is to impose the RSS’s agenda on the country. Occasionally, the RSS-BJP’s IT cells and some leaders belittle Gandhi, his vision and his idea of India.

Nitish has stayed away from overtly reacting to the diatribes unleashed by the RSS-BJP on Gandhi, but has subtly signalled his resolve to stick to the larger vision of Gandhi, and Kumar’s ideological ancestors, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan. It is pertinent to point out here that the more the RSS-BJP tried to belittle him, Nitish has showered more love on Champaran, the symbol of Gandhi’s philosophy and action.

He embarked on his first yatra to Champaran in 2005, ahead of coming to power with the BJP. He has since begun almost all his yatras from Champaran in the past 15 years of his rule.

Nitish Kumar paying tribute to Gandhi. Photo: PTI

Asserting an independent identity

The second most important point is whenever Nitish comes under “pressure” or “stress”, he visits the land of Gandhi to rediscover himself. His opponents, the RJD and Congress, along with the media, recently pilloried him on the issue of severe flooding in Patna. The BJP’s cadre has also been ‘covertly’ flexing their muscle to corner the “unpredictable” and “hard bargainer” that Nitish is and go it alone in Bihar.

Through this yatraNitish has been demonstrating his identity and independent way of driving home issues. He has not involved the BJP, an alliance partner, in the yatra. JD(U) insiders revealed that the chief minister has taken up the issue of climate change and threat to environment after exchanging ideas with experts.

Bihar director general of police Gupteshwar Pandey, who is travelling with other senior officers of the government with Nitish, said that growing pollution in water and air and the degrading quality of environment, aided by excessive use of chemicals in agriculture and food has affected one and all. “It is an issue concerning the people at large. The CM understands the need to create awareness on this issue among the people and is taking up measures to lessen the deleterious impact of pollution all around”, he said.

Also Read: For Nitish’s Political Future, the Bihar Floods Couldn’t Have Come at a Worse Time

Apparently, Nitish finds the environment to be the “most potent and cogent” issue to unite the people ahead of the assembly polls, due in October/November next year. Moreover, no one – either the ally BJP or the opposition RJD/ Congress – can attack him on the issue because of the devastating effect of flood and drought in the state. Needless to say, his opponents – internal or external – have so far remained tight-lipped on the yatra.

Patna-based senior vernacular journalist, Surendra Kishore said, “Nitish has undertaken his yatra to demonstrate his identity and existence in the face of the BJP cadres’ pressure to get rid of him.” The noticeable point is, Nitish – of course, he is accompanied by officials – doesn’t bring politicians into the frame in such yatras. He inspects government schemes related to the implementation of MNREGA, and schemes for agriculture, plantation of trees, mid-day meals and measures to uplift and empower the weaker sections and minorities and interacts with the people directly.

People stranded during the floods being rescued on a JCB in Patna. Photo: PTI

Eco-friendly image

Sources close to Nitish revealed that his Jal, Jeevan, Hariyali yatra that began in Champaran will continue over different phases across the state until February/March 2020. “He will plan his next yatra after assessing its impact,” a source said.

Temperamentally too, Nitish has been an environment-friendly leader. Ahead of embarking on the yatra, Nitish travelled to Punjab, meeting Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal – an environment conservationist also known as ‘Eco Baba’ in Punjab – at the latter’s Nirmal Kutiya on the bank of the river Bein in Jalandhar district on November 8. Nitish’s respect for Seechewal and his river conservation work is widely known in Punjab.

In the past also, Nitish has taken several measures for the conservation of the environment even at the cost of antagonising his political friends. For instance, he banned the quarrying of stones and mining of sand in Bihar, antagonising a top BJP leader who had business interests in central Bihar.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and co-author of the book Gopalganj to Raisina: My Political Journey, Lalu Prasad’s autobiography.

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