Patna: Seeking to embarrass the Nitish Kumar government over non-payment of salaries to lakhs of school teachers, two top state BJP leaders today returned the gifts given to them by the Education Department and others may follow suit.
Sushil Kumar Modi, Leader of BJP Legislature Party, has returned all seven gift items, including a microwave oven presented by the Education Department, at a counter in the Legislative Council, while state BJP chief Mangal Pandey gave back the oven.
It has been raining gifts for the members of the two houses of Bihar legislature, whose Budget session is underway. It has been a practice by successive governments in the state to present gifts to the legislators during the Budget session and sometimes even journalists are the beneficiaries of the largesse.
Modi, a former Deputy Chief Minister, later said he and Pandey had decided to return the gifts to protest the non-payment of salaries to school teachers for the last several months.
"How can we take gifts from the Education Department that can't even pay salaries to lakhs of school teachers?" he told reporters.
A number of BJP legislators are also likely to return the microwave ovens, party sources said.
Education Minister Ashok Chaudhary, however, defended his department's decision to gift microwave ovens costing Rs 11,225 apiece to 243 MLAs and 75 MLCs, saying it was customary for various governments to present goodies to legislators.
"It has been a long-standing practice by various departments to give gifts to the lawmakers....Some BJP leaders are needlessly making it an issue for the sake of publicity," he told reporters outside the legislative council.
Unfazed by the opposition's offensive, Chaudhary hit back, saying the BJP leaders should take up the matter with Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani and ask her to release funds under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Centre's flagship scheme for universal education, so the teachers could be paid.
With the matter snowballing into a major row, Deputy Chief Minister Tejaswi Yadav and his mother Rabri Devi, a former chief Minister, slammed the BJP legislators over their "belated move" to return the gifts and wondered why they accepted those in the first place.
They accused Modi and other BJP leaders of "playing politics" over it.
"The BJP legislators, including (Sushil Kumar) Modi, had received gifts during the erstwhile RJD rule, too. They should return those gifts as well as those received during the NDA regime over eight years," Rabri Devi said.
Meanwhile, unhappy over the controversy, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was said to have decided to do away with the practice. Sources close to the development said the matter was likely to be brought before the Cabinet soon. There was, however, no official word on it.