On 20 March, as states across India were facing the worst ravages of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bihar government said in a reassuringly-worded press release that “every district’s control rooms are in active mode; the situation is being monitored.” By the end of the month, Bihar had reported only 436 active cases. Yet, a surge in the virus’s spread over the next two months would kill 9,375 people. This was a revised figure from that the state government put out on 8 June, after the Patna High Court ordered it to recheck its facts or face perjury. The state government had earlier claimed a death toll of 5,458. Despite attempts by Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s media savvy chief minister, to frequently advertise his government’s management of COVID-19 as a success, a series of judicial proceedings taken up by the Patna High Court highlight the state’s consistent failures to provide hospital beds, oxygen and data about deaths throughout the second wave. The hearings also emphasise how the Bihar government frequently lied to the courts about their pandemic preparation in an attempt to hide deliberate mismanagement.
Kumar, who has been Bihar’s chief minister since 2005 ,except for a ten-month hiatus, took office for the fifth time in November 2020, shortly before the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Between his inauguration and March 2021, Kumar attended three virtual meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the handling of the pandemic and chaired one meeting with the bureaucrats of his state. He warned his bureaucrats to be alert to the possibility of a second wave, but his own events lacked the same alacrity. On 12 March, he attended Shivratri puja at a temple in Patna amidst hundreds of devotees, which public health experts advised against from the beginning of the pandemic. He even sat through a dance programme for hours on the occasion.
Yet eight days later, in a press release, Kumar told the state, “In any festival or event, citizen should participate in limited numbers only and follow corona guidelines strictly.” Following the incident, the opposition in Bihar revived the sobriquet of Paltu Chacha—turncoat uncle, which Kumar first had thrust upon him after he broke his alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal in 2017—for his going back on his words. Over the next two months, Kumar’s government routinely overestimated its preparation and exaggerated its efforts to the court, while citizens scrambled for beds and oxygen.
On 9 April, the number of active COVID-19 cases reached 9,357, almost 18 times more than where the number stood on 20 March. Despite the dramatic rise in cases, the Bihar government refused to order a lockdown. This decision was likely taken under the influence of Mangal Pandey, a BJP legislator, who was health minister of the state at the time. Pandey had told journalists on 31 March and 11 April that there was “no need of lockdown” and that the situation was “not alarming.”
This mirrored Modi’s own position of avoiding lockdowns during the second wave after the unpopular and poorly managed first national lockdown. Bihar’s government has often been lauded as having a “double engine” because Kumar’s party, the Janata Dal (United), is an alliance partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party in power at the centre and this is seen as a precondition for quick decision making and good governance. During the second wave, the alliance appeared to have become an impediment in using lockdowns when they were most needed in April. On 11 April, when Pandey again announced his opposition to a lockdown, active cases in the state had risen to 14,695, 33 times what it was on 20 March. Pandey, though, said that cases were rising because testing had been intensified.