Why did Nitish Kumar’s supposedly secular party vote for the Citizenship Bill?

The Janata Dal United may not need Muslim voters as much as it would the BJP’s base to prevail in next year’s Assembly election.

ByAnand Vardhan
Why did Nitish Kumar’s supposedly secular party vote for the Citizenship Bill?
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“Paswan ji ka Osama Bin Laden mere paas aa gaya,” Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav said, as he paraded Meraj Khalid Noor, known as a Bin Laden lookalike, while campaigning for the 2005 Assembly election in Biar. Lalu was exuding glee after snatching away a star campaigner from Lok Janshakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan, who had sought to use Noor’s resemblance to Bin Laden to woo Muslim voters in the previous year’s Lok Sabha election. Noor’s significance to the campaign plans of Paswan and Lalu could be gauged from the fact that a report in The Telegraph noted that his “seat in the helicopter was permanently booked with Paswan and Lalu Prasad, even at the cost of dropping other recognised political leaders ”. Carrying the appearance and sartorial sense of the slain Al Qaeda leader, Noor was introduced at rallies as “Osama Bin Laden”.

Nearly a decade later, Noor was out of favour on Bihar’s campaign scene in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The political equations as well as the campaign narrative had witnessed a shift. Paswan’s party had joined the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The RJD, still eyeing its famed Muslim-Yadav support base, was wary of using a figure that could push a section of the floating and undecided voters away with what could be perceived as a crude symbol of appeasement politics. In a way, Noor’s diminished fortunes were a reflection of how the state’s parties were recalibrating their approach to Muslim voters in Bihar, who constitute around 16 percent of the population. With the RJD, and to a lesser extent its ally Congress, still positioned as chief beneficiares of Muslim support, regional forces like the Janata Dal United and the Lok Janshakti Party are faced with a cost-benefit analysis of chasing or even retaining their limited hold over Muslim voters.

It’s in this context that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s support to the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the parliament has been of interest to political commentators. There is a view that the move suggests that the JDU chief is showing clarity and confidence on how to approach the Assembly election, scheduled for November 2020.

Nitish parted ways with the NDA in 2013 after the BJP declared Narendra Modi its prime ministerial candidate, but the secular branding did not bring much gain to his party in the 2014 Lok Sabha election – it won just two seats – or the 2015 Assembly election for which it had to make peace and ally with the RJD, and the Congress, to retain its hold on the Muslim vote. In addition to the usual talk about his anxieties about Modi’s dominant leadership, Nitish was hoping that severing ties with the NDA would enable him to extend his support base from non-Yadav OBC Mahadalit caste groups to sections of the Muslim electorate. It’s relevant to recall that in 2005 and 2010, before Modi’s emergence on the national stage, Nitish, contetsing in alliance with the BJP, had secured sizeable Muslim support. 

In spite of severing ties with the NDA and secular posturing, Nitish’s party couldn’t make significant inroads into the Muslim electorate on its own in 2014, and needed allies like the RJD to do so in 2015. Sharp differences between the JDU and the RJD led to the collapse of their coalition government, and Nitish steered the party back into the NDA fold.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the NDA won 39 of Bihar’s 40 seats, with the JDU winning 16 of the 17 seats it contested, the BJP 17 and the LJP six. The NDA got just six per cent of the Muslim vote. Even if one allows for the general disinclination among Muslim voters towards the BJP, that even the JDU didn’t  find much support in the community is obvious. Perhaps a more decisive number from the 2019 result is one that Nitish can’t be indifferent to in the immediate frame of electoral arithmetic: even with such marginal support among Muslim voters, the NDA’s vote share was unassailably higher than that of the rival group. The RJD-led alliance was 28 percent behind the NDA in vote share. It could get only 25 percent of the vote against the NDA’s 53 percent. In a comparative frame – though that could be deceptive given the difference between Lok Sabha polls and Assembly polls – in the 2015 Assembly polls, despite the loss, the NDA’s vote share was only 7 percent behind the rival alliance’s.

Remember that the RJD’s core voters – the Muslim-Yadav combine – alone constitute 30 percent of the electorate. This gives a sense that the RJD-led alliance could not get votes even from their core supporters.

Nitish doesn’t expect that huge gap of 28 percent closing too dramatically or too soon  in the run-up to the Assembly election in 2020. A weak RJD isn’t an attractive proposition for Nitish now – perhaps as tricky as a strong Modi. There is a view that Nitish’s problems with the BJP aren’t about its state unit. It has more to do with Modi’s dominant position and the possibility of the Modi-Shah duo pushing the BJP to play Big Brother in the state. The latter concern, along with BJP leaders from the state like Giriraj Singh occasionally expressing disagreement with the state government, has been to an extent addressed by Amit Shah saying his party would contest the 2020 Bihar election in alliance with the JDU, under the leadership of Nitish Kumar. He also ruled out any possibility of the BJP going it alone.

With such an assurance from the BJP’s leadership and his known assessment of the poll landscape and its key contours, a degree of strategic clarity could be seen in his stand on the Citizenship Bill. After staying away from union cabinet in pursuit of his party’s demand for proportionate representation in ministerial berths, Nitish is now keen on avoiding any clash with the BJP brass in the run-up to the polls. A smooth navigation of the working with the ally might help it have a better say in negotiations when talks for seat-sharing start in the second half of next year. 

In arriving at such a decision, Nitish has chosen to place immediate political imperatives above the rhetoric of party leaders like general secretary Pavan Varma and vice president Prashant Kishor, who haven’t made themselves relevant to the party’s stakes in power mobilisation and political management within a larger alliance beyond their television appearances and poll consultancy.

There are signs that Nitish has hit the campaign trail early. He has been travelling different districts and reviewing the pace of progress of governmental projects and development work, including Jal, Jeevan and Hariyali programme, which has acquired significance because of its emphasis on water conservation and environment protection. While equally alert to political calculus, he would be keen on building on his reputation for efficient governance. 

This would run parallel to the political project of crafting social coalitions. Retaining and expanding their electoral bases is something that both the JDU and the BJP would prioritise — sometimes by allying, other times by competing. After the 2005 victory, the JDU had worked on building a social coalition of core support that included non-Yadav OBCs (especially Kurmis and Koeris), Mahadalits (which excluded the relatively well-off Dusads among the Dalits), the Economically Backward Class, a section of Muslims, along with cultivating a few influential leaders among the upper castes. Aided by the Nitish government’s decent governance record and the chief minister’s reputation for probity and development, the 2010 Assembly polls were smooth sailing for the NDA. However, following its dissociation with the NDA in 2013, the JDU found it hard to keep that social coalition intact, and even lost the share of the upper caste BJP votes that it has been taking for granted as part of the NDA. It was reduced to two seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, before bouncing back with 71 seats in the 2015 polls as part of the coalition with the RJD and the Congress. In 2017, it rejoined the NDA and run a simple majority government.

Nitish, though, has reasons to be anxious about his party’s hold among its traditional supporters. Statistics may not tell the story. In fact, they point towards the JDU’s rising vote share in the 2019 polls. The JDU saw its vote share rise to 21.8 percent from 16.04 percent in 2014, when it had contested all 40 seats alone. On the other hand, its ally, the BJP, got 23.58 percent of the votes polled, which is less than the 29.40 percent it got in 2014. While this difference might give a sense that the BJP made concessions to let its ally grow at its own expense, the worry for the JDU is no less. It is rooted in a common understanding that the JDU rode the wave of Modi’s popularity to make these impressive gains. The increase in its vote share might not be a fair measure of the party’s hold on its voter base.

In what may not be an inaccurate assessment, the JDU, irrespective of its limited social base, is aware that Nitish has an edge over his potential challengers to chief ministership. That’s the message the party is conveying through hoardings in Patna which carry the catchline, “ Kyun karein vichar, thik to hai Nitish Kumar.” Why think of anyone else? Nitish Kumar is alright. 

What this week’s events have shown, however, is that Nitish has uncluttered for himself the political turf that he needs to retain, expand and forget to stay put at 1, Anne Marg. The road there seems to go via smoother relations with 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. But the shelf life of such an assessment is anybody’s guess when it comes to Nitish.

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