Backing CAA but rejecting NRC is typical election-mode Nitish Kumar

His government has passed a unanimous resolution in the Assembly stating that there’s no need for NRC in Bihar.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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It isn’t often that a unanimous resolution passed by the Bihar Assembly makes national news. But that is what happened on Tuesday. Its political import, though, is more about what it signals rather than what it says.

The resolution says there’s no need to conduct an exercise to build the National Register of Citizens in Bihar. Moreover, the state will mostly use the 2010 format for compiling the National Population Register. This means the new columns added to the form for collecting NPR data – which are anyway optional – won’t be considered, except the column for transgender persons.

Significantly, tabling the resolution, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar defended his endorsement of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is regarded by its critics as being entwined with the NRC.

Nitish also sought to synchronise his Janata Dal United’s position with that of its National Democratic Alliance partner, Bharatiya Janata Party. This was apparent from how Nitish articulated his rejection of the NRC by citing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement about the exercise not being on the current agenda of the central government. However, the fact that Nitish was leveraging his party’s importance and his inevitability as the NDA’s chief ministerial face in the state polls later this year too was clear.

In seeking his party’s voice within the NDA by sticking to his stance on the NRC, Nitish has made Bihar the first NDA-governed state to to pass a legislative resolution against the exercise.

The opposition Grand Alliance, led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal, is witnessing a race among its constituents to take credit for forcing the Nitish government to pass the resolution. RJD leader Tejshasvi Yadav had brought an adjournment motion and demanded a debate on the CAA, NRC and NPR in the Assembly. In many ways, Nitish’s prompt response of endorsing the CAA but passing a resolution rejecting the need for the NRC is a brain-teaser for both his opponents and his ally, the BJP.

Political commentators in Bihar see it as another masterstroke by Nitish ahead of the election. There, however, is also a sense that it indicates that the eventual terms of alliance formation and the nature of campaign are yet to emerge. In light of how the move has triggered different interpretations, a few signals could be detected.

First, what Nitish did in the Assembly isn’t something he hadn’t been saying since the CAA was passed in the parliament. So, as a matter of policy, there is nothing new in the JDU supporting the CAA but opposing the NRC. In fact, in his defence of the CAA, Nitish talked about how even Congress leaders such as Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, and Kapil Sibal had supported the idea of such a law. He also recalled that the parliamentary committee which cleared the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2003 included RJD founder Lalu Prasad Yadav. Similarly, Nitish has been expressing his intention to not allow NRC in Bihar for sometime now.

What’s new is that Nitish got the BJP to agree with the resolution against the need for the NRC in Bihar and make it a unanimous decision. In a way, he was testing waters for the seat-sharing bargain and getting a sense of how much the BJP was ready to concede. He seems to be in pole position to do that given the BJP’s lack of a strong leader in the state, and recent electoral reversals in Jharkhand and Delhi.

Nitish also recognises that endorsing the CAA can offer him some electoral benefits, while opposing the NRC can yield its own gains and few electoral costs. Rejecting the NRC could help him retrieve a part of his minority vote by sending a signal that he is being attentive to their anxieties despite being with the BJP. It might not have attendant costs as bogey-raising around document-verification for the NRC has meant that other sections of his electorate too would be wary of the anticipated inconvenience of dealing with long queues for bureaucratic paperwork. More significantly, he doesn’t want the NRC and NPR issue to be a distraction for his poll plank of governance, particularly infrastructure development.

Second, while the opposition might indulge in self-congratulatory rhetoric in the media, by passing the resolution Nitish has deprived it of an immediate campaign issue. Interestingly, while making triumphant noises about the resolution, Tejashvi didn’t say much about Nitish’s endorsement of the CAA. In a way, Kumar managed to neutralise the concerted attack of the opposition by getting the Assembly to pass a resolution against the NRC. The Grand Alliance, which is showing some signs of disquiet, may need other immediate issues to give early momentum to its campaign.

Third, these moves are being seen by political observers as the seeds of a possible realignment of the JDU with the Grand Alliance with or even without the RJD. The meeting between Tejashwi and Nitish in the Assembly House before the resolution, and later the invitation by Hindustani Awam Morcha chief Jitan Ram Manjhi, has intensified speculation. While the meeting in the Assembly could be the routine exercise that’s conducted before any unanimous legislation is passed, Nitish’s past of somersaults and his assumed unease within the NDA can give wings to such conjectures in the election season.

There are many reasons why such rapprochement with his 2015 allies may not be realistic now, but there remain reasons for how the Grand Alliance can reconfigure itself to accommodate Nitish. The tussle within the Grand Alliance – which includes, besides the RJD and the Congress, the Hindustani Awam Morcha, the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party and Mukesh Sahni’s Vikassheel Insan Party – could open up such a possibility. However, the odds against such realignment seem too high, and a political risk for Nitish in comparison with a more settled political equation he’s a part of now.

Fourth, despite murmurs by some state BJP leaders against their party’s adjustment to Nitish’s demand for unanimous resolution, the party seems to have decided to take a back step when faced with the contentious issues affecting its alliance with the JDU. On ideological issues, the prime minister is well aware of differences that the BJP would have to navigate with its alliance partners. At a meeting of NDA leaders a few days after being re-elected with a stronger mandate last May, Modi had asserted the need to develop this understanding because the very fact that they are different political parties implies that they would have different ideologies. Factoring this in the electoral arithmetic, the BJP had conceded equal number of seats to the JDU for the Lok Sabha election. It recognizes the need to be even more generous in the Assembly election. Before getting down to seat-sharing negotiations, however, the BJP is more concerned about keeping Nitish away from the lure of rival alliances.

There are a number of reasons why Nitish would find the NDA more attractive in the election season. I have reflected on some of these reasons in two earlier pieces. The coming months may test the efficacy of such factors, and decide whether the JDU can resist the lure of alternative political formations or not. His cost-benefit analysis in endorsing the CAA but officially rejecting the NRC seems quite an interesting exercise in tightrope-walking in the run-up to the election. That is what many credit him for mastering. It’s typical Nitish.


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