Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has waded into yet another controversy, in all probability, knowingly. His statement in Bihar assembly on the adjournment motion on CAA-NPR-NRC moved by Leader of Opposition Tejashwi Yadav is intended to have far-reaching consequences. During the debate Tuesday, the Janata Dal (United) president commented: “Even I don’t know when my mother was born. There is no need to bring about NRC.” His government in Bihar has passed a resolution against the National Register of Citizens.
Much to the embarrassment of the central leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nitish Kumar has suggested that the National Population Register (NPR), in its present form, would create confusion in the country, hinting that the old format in use since 2010 should be followed. The 2010 format is the one that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Manmohan Singh brought about.
Emptying opposition’s plate
But Nitish Kumar seems to have been insufficiently briefed on some of the aspects of these two formats. For example, there is an accusation that the 2020 NPR format does not mention any Muslim festival. Many would not know that this aspect of Annexure V is the same that was used in 2011. The festivals’ list is a way to figure out the month of birth. So, if Nitish Kumar does not know the exact date of birth of his mother, this list would help the NPR enumerator arrive at the month of her birth. But politicians are not expected to go into details, especially when it does not suit them politically.
It is possible that Nitish Kumar would not like to rub the BJP the wrong way in an election year. But his political strategy would be to divest opposition parties of all the issues that could give them a platform in the state. Close on the heels of the nationwide protest against the CAA-NPR-NRC, the opposition in Bihar too would prefer to blow it up as a major issue, allowing it to piggy ride on it to weaken the development narrative of the Nitish Kumar government. And hence his suggestive argument that 2020 NPR is bad but 2010 NPR was good. One could interpret Nitish Kumar’s statement as an attempt to open a negotiating road to the Congress and other parties.
When the opposition members shouted slogans referring to the CAA as “kala kanoon”, it was left to the BJP members to counter them and suggest that Parliament would not pass any bill that can be termed ‘black law’. Nitish Kumar, whose JD(U) supported the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in both Houses of Parliament, just smiled at the slogan-shouting opposition members.
Yet another shift or mixed signals?
So, is the ‘blue-eyed boy’ of the combined opposition and the nebulous third front that props up from time to time during elections jumping ship again? His one-time newfound friend and advisor Prashant Kishor, whom he appointed his party’s vice president and praised as the “future of politics”, quit the JD(U) in a huff over the CM’s support to the CAA. Since Nitish Kumar’s stand on the NRC, the estranged friends have reportedly become buddies again.
But even before one can say with certainty that Nitish-BJP coalition is over, Nitish Kumar’s observation on the CAA – “the matter is now in Supreme Court and will be debated there” – reinforces his link with the BJP. So, he is not quitting the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), yet.
If this is seen as sending mixed signals, then that exactly seems to be his strategy. In order to keep his flock together and register an impressive win for one more term, Nitish Kumar needs a foolproof strategy.
Can’t do without each other
BJP’s ace strategist Amit Shah has already announced that the alliance with the JD(U) would remain and the Bihar election would be fought under the leadership of Nitish Kumar. This has dampened the spirits of some of the BJP leaders but even they are aware of the shortcomings of the party. The BJP is yet to come up with a strong and credible face to challenge Nitish Kumar and mop up the votes that go to other opposition parties like the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
Similarly, Nitish Kumar is aware that disassociating with the BJP will hurt the BJP’s prospects and reduce its tally, but it will also deny him the buffer votes that he needs to add up to his own committed vote base and be a few notches above the combined opposition votes. An opposition unity coupled with a strong anti-NRC movement in an election year will be the last thing Nitish Kumar would want. The victory of Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi election is seen as a straw in the wind.
It is clear that both Nitish Kumar and the BJP would need each other if they want to avoid looking like losers in the Bihar election. Winning is extremely crucial for both the JD(U) and the BJP. Setting the cat among pigeons will help neither.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.