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Nitish tries to woo Muslims away from Lalu

April 17, 2009 02:53 IST
Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party by his side, the Janata Dal-United and its mascot --Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is eyeing the Muslim vote bank of the state. And he has made some inroads into this segment which, in the past, has shown unconditional loyalty to Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad.

After coming to power in November 2005, Kumar's government left almost no stone unturned to woo the politically important vote bank. The assurance of Muslim support is perceived crucial for the JD-U's future road map, especially its alliance with the BJP.

The Muslim vote is considered crucial in 10-12 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

However, there is still a question mark over whether Muslim voters will overwhelmingly support Kumar. But across the state, the community acknowledges that Kumar's government -- although dependent on the BJP -- is a "friendly" government. Some even go to the extent of terming it better than Lalu Prasad's.

Abdul Khaleq, a landlord of Sheikh Dumri village, says, "Nitish Kumar's government is good. He has done a lot of work for us. We will definitely vote for him in the next Assembly polls."

But the same commitment is still missing for the current Lok Sabha elections. "This election is to elect Lal Krishna Advani as prime minister. Muslims may not vote for Kumar to a large extent," Khaleq adds as Md Ismail and Abid Hussain support him.

According to the 1991 census, Bihar's Muslim population was 101.19 lakh (15.7 per cent of the state's total population). During 1991-2001, the Muslim population went up to about 130 lakh (16 per cent of the state population). As much as 84.5 per cent of the Muslim population lives in rural areas while 15.5 per cent is urban.

Kumar is clear about his approach. Recently, releasing his party manifesto, he said, "Our 10-point programme for the minorities in Bihar should be replicated throughout India. People who are lagging behind must be given priority."

Apart from coming out with this welfare programme, Kumar's masterstroke has been to reopen the Bhagalpur riots case and compensate the victims. "We support Nitish Kumar. Muslims will vote for him in Bhagalpur. We are not concerned about who will be the prime minister. We want to express our gratitude to Kumar for what he has done for the riot victims," said Md Khurshid Alam, the head of the Riot Victims' Relief Committee in Bhagalpur.

"Will L K Advani throw Muslims out of India? He can't do that. And remember, during the tenure of Nitish Kumar, there hasn't been a single riot or communal violence in the state," added Alam.

Sitting at a roadside tea-stall at the collectorate in Bhagalpur, Communist Party of India-Marxist candidate and the party's Central Committee member Subodh Roy admits, "He will get some dividend for this. But it will be wrong to assume the Muslims will vote en masse for him."

Nitish Kumar's government has begun a pension scheme of Rs 2,500 per family for 277 riot victims since September 2008. In 2006, his government also waived loans of 855 people. Electricity bills of Muslim handloom workers too have been waived. Another compensation package is awaiting the final approval of the government.

Apart from education and vocational training schemes specifically targeted at the minorities, another measure of Kumar has earned him rich dividends — fencing off graveyards. Saibal Gupta, member secretary, Asian Development Research Institute, explains, "Many cases of communal violence had occurred because people tried to grab unprotected land belonging to graveyards. So, his plan to fence the graveyards has also helped curb communal tension."

Union Rural Development Minister and RJD candidate from Vaishali Raghvansh Prasad Singh took the cue from Kumar and did the same in his constituency, paying for it out of his MP fund.

While Md Khurshid Alam is confident that Bhagalpur compensation will have impact throughout the state, others like the CPI(ML) leaders refuse to buy the argument. Their theory is: Muslims in most of the constituencies are waiting to see which non-NDA candidate emerges as the front-runner in that seat. They will vote for him. Haji Haroon of Bheriahi village in Madhubani district echoes similar sentiments, "I accept that the Nitish government has done better work than Lalu Prasad. But we have not decided about our vote. It will be difficult to make a choice between the Congress and the RJD."

The RJD is aware of this and trying to woo back the Muslims. In his campaign in Vaishali, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh points out to the audience: "Nitish Kumar calls himself secular, secular, secular. But he wants to make Advani the prime minister. He is sitting between Advani and Bal Thackeray. We have to save the country."

Saubhadro Chatterji