Nitish Kumar's grand Shahabuddin dilemma: should he protect his govt or image?
Gangster-politician Mohammad Shahabuddin might well be heading straight back into jail. Last Saturday, the former RJD MP and Siwan strongman walked out of prison after 12 years, following the acceptance of his bail plea by the Patna High Court in the Rajiv Roshan murder case.
The Nitish Kumar government in Bihar is reportedly considering slapping charges under the Crime Control Act (CCA) against Shahabuddin. It did the same for Anant Singh, another gangster and an independent MLA from the Mokama constituency.
Several RJD leaders, including many MPs and MLAs, had lined up to welcome Shahabuddin out of jail. And now, there's a growing feeling among JD(U) leaders that even more than hurting the grand alliance government's image, this has hurt Nitish's own 'clean' image, for which people had voted in last year's Assembly elections.
When Nitish first came to power in alliance with the BJP in 2005, after 15 years of Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi's dominance in the state, one of the first things he did was to begin speedy trials against criminal elements in state politics. Shahabuddin was on top of the list of gangster-turned-politicians who were jailed as part of this campaign. He was categorised as an 'A-category' history-sheeter.
However, Shahabuddin's release seems to have become a liability for the current dispensation. In addition, the belligerence shown by the controversial leader has not helped matters either. As he left prison, the four-term former MP from Siwan took a swipe at the Chief Minister, stating: "Nitish Kumar is a leader of circumstances, and my leader is Lalu Yadav. I don't need to elaborate on the strong relations I enjoy with Lalu. We all know I was framed."
This jibe added salt to Nitish's wounds. Opposition parties alleged that the government had paved the way for Shahabuddin's bail. The government's silence over challenging the High Court's bail order only intensified the Opposition onslaught.
In the midst of all this, senior Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan fired another salvo at the government. Announcing that he would move the Supreme Court for the cancellation of bail, Bhushan tweeted: "(It is) shameful that HC granted bail to notorious gangster/politico (RJD) Shahabuddin. I have agreed to seek cancellation of bail in SC on victims' behalf."
As per his style of functioning, following Bhushan's announcement, the Bihar Chief Minister called an urgent meeting of legal experts and his close aides. Usually, he consults his associates after he has made a decision, and then puts it forward for his cabinet's approval.
"Prashant Bhushan is doing what the Bihar government ought to have done. Now, the Chief Minister has shown signs of taking some action to save himself the embarrassment Bhushan's appeal would have brought," says a senior advocate at Patna High Court.
But if Nitish does go ahead and slap the stringent CCA on Shahabuddin, it would leave him in a precarious political position.
Patna-based senior journalist Sukant points out: "Nitish Kumar would be seen as coming close to the BJP if he books Shahabuddin under the CCA, as the BJP has been demanding this action for some time. It will benefit the BJP while widening the rift between RJD and JD(U)."
Nitish hardly has the luxury of bypassing Lalu on this matter, since the RJD is numerically stronger in the Assembly. Ignoring the RJD supremo's wishes might not bode well for the health of the government.
The Muslim factor
Government strategists feel taking tough action against Shahabuddin might also not go down well with the Muslim community. There is very little chance that Lalu Prasad would ever agree to such a decision, as he might find hard to explain this decision to his large support base among Muslims.
Shahabuddin is known to be quite popular among the community. His closeness to Lalu Prasad has placed him as one of the prominent Muslim leaders in the RJD. The mafia don's rising stature in Lalu's party was highlighted when the state's minorities minister, Abdul Gafur, went to the Siwan jail to meet Shahabuddin. Days later, the Shahabuddin was included in the party's national executive.
"It's a 'devil-and-the-deep blue sea' situation for the government. To act in this manner might cost Nitish more dearly than not taking any action at all," Sukant says.
The journalist feels that Lalu would have no objection to the state government taking the matter to the Supreme Court. But since Bhushan has already announced it, Nitish & Co. are facing the moral pressure to walk the talk when it comes to zero tolerance against criminalisation of politics, after initially doing nothing about it
The ball, quite clearly, is in Lalu's court. But he has, till now, not spoken on the matter. It seems he is waiting and watching what Nitish's next move will be.
Translated by Deepak Sharma, edited by Shreyas Sharma
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