Patna: With the JD(U) backing the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in the Lok Sabha, party president and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has signaled a major shift in his electoral strategy — that he is reconciled to the fact that Muslims, who make up 16 per cent of the state’s population, will never vote for his party again.
The decision also indicates that the party is now firmly with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and has no plans to return to the Grand Alliance, which was its coalition with the Congress and the Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) among other parties.
The JD(U)’s backing of the controversial legislation has not only shocked political opponents in Bihar but its own leaders as the party had been opposed to the controversial legislation.
A change in political strategy
Despite his proximity to the BJP, Nitish has always projected a secular face and wooed the Muslims of the state.
The chief minister’s quest for Muslim votes began in 2005 when he assumed power in Bihar for the first time along with the BJP. He virtually barred then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi from visiting the state for his alleged role in the 2003 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom.
He also reopened the 1989 Bhagalpur communal riot cases, which had targeted Muslims, and in 2010 cancelled a dinner he had hosted for BJP leaders attending the party’s national executive meet in Patna because an advertisement in local vernacular papers showed Modi and him holding hands on a public stage.
The strategy appeared to have paid dividends. In the 2010 assembly elections, the NDA won an unprecedented 206 seats in the 243-member Bihar assembly with strong indications that a sizeable Muslim population had voted for the alliance despite the BJP’s presence. For the first time, the Bihar BJP also managed a Muslim MLA from a the Muslim-dominated assembly constituency of Purnea.
Nitish even snapped ties with the BJP in 2013 after it became clear that Modi would be the BJP’s PM candidate. The chief minister also coined the slogan of a “RSS-mukt Bharat” on the strong belief that Muslims would switch over to him.
The 2014 Lok Sabha elections, however, provided a reality check as Muslims went with their traditional support for the RJD, leaving Nitish’s JD(U) with just two of the 40 Lok Sabha seats.
Even in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, post-poll surveys indicated that the NDA, despite winning 39 of the 40 seats, managed just 6 per cent of the Muslim votes.
Nitish, it seems, is now reconciled to the fact that Muslim votes will not favour him despite his “secular image”. The JD(U) now appears to think that opposing the Citizenship Amendment Bill may end up with the party being branded anti-Hindu but by supporting the controversial legislation, Nitish has virtually given up on his quest for Muslim votes.
JD(U) leaders ‘shocked’ by decision
Among the first to react to the party’s volte-face in Parliament was JD(U)’s national vice-president and election strategist Prashant Kishor. He tweeted that he was “disappointed” by the decision and said that the “party’s constitution carries the word secular thrice on the very first page”.
He was followed by the JD(U) national general secretary Pavan Varma who urged Nitish to reconsider his decision. He tweeted Tuesday that the bill is “unconstitutional, discriminatory, and against the unity and harmony of the country, apart from being against the secular principles of the JD(U)”.
Other JD(U) leaders are not amused either. “I am amused that the parliamentary leader Lallan Singh said that the party was supporting the bill because there was nothing communal in it,” said a JD(U) minister who did not want to be named.
“About two months ago, speaking at the national council of the party, Nitish had spoken for 45 minutes against the proposed CAB and had declared it as being dangerous for the country.”
Party leaders are all the more mystified as the JD(U) had presented “token opposition” by staging a walk out in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha on contentious issues such as the abrogation of Article 370 for J&K and the Triple Talaq Bill.
“It is apparent that Nitish does not want to anger the top BJP leadership since he has to negotiate with them on the number of seats the NDA partners will contest in the next assembly polls to be held before next November,” the JD(U) minister added.
“He would also want the JD(U) included in the central ministry. Now that he has decided to remain in the NDA, he cannot afford to antagonise the BJP leadership.”
Opposition scathing, says doors shut on JD(U)
The opposition has been equally unforgiving.
“After this, the JD(U) should consider merging with the BJP. Nitish Kumar is now off limits for secular forces,” said RJD national vice-president Shivanand Tiwari who had kicked up a row Saturday after claiming that “Nitish was against the CAB” and “welcoming his stand”.
There had been speculation that Nitish may rejoin the Grand Alliance as BJP leaders have been openly critical of the chief minister.
The Lalu-Nitish combine is a formidable force in Bihar but of late the possibility of them joining hands has been diminishing.
While Nitish has declared that working with Lalu is not possible because of the working style of the two leaders, Lalu’s son Tejashwi Yadav has been even more critical of chief minister than the BJP.
At the RJD’s national executive meet Monday Tejashwi blamed Nitish for the law and order situation in the state and termed him a “paltu chacha” for his U-turn on the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
Then there are electoral considerations in play. In the last Lok Sabha elections, the vote difference between the NDA and Grand Alliance was a massive 28 per cent, which Nitish considers unassailable even in the next assembly polls.
“There is no point in even considering Grand Alliance at this moment,” the JD(U) minister quoted above said.