To the BJP’s surprise, Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) reached across the aisle to the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to pass a unanimous resolution against the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) and demanded that the National Population Register (NPR) be conducted in the same format as it was in 2010.
“You should have seen the faces of BJP MLAs when this resolution came in the house. They were visibly shocked,” informed Shakeel Ahmad Khan, an MLA from the opposition Congress party, who was present in the assembly at the time.
The Bihar assembly is not the only one to have passed a resolution against the NRC, but it is certainly the first in which the BJP is part of the state government. The fact that Union Home Minister Amit Shah is the biggest proponent of the NRC was lost on no-one.
A few days later, Nitish Kumar’s government proposed and passed a resolution demanding caste census — a matter that the BJP’s central leadership has flip-flopped on, and then Nitish renewed his demand for special status for Bihar — once more putting tacit pressure on the Modi-Shah government. He followed this up with a closed-door meeting with the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav. Yadav reciprocated by describing Nitish as Prime Ministerial material in a speech in the state assembly.
In Bihar, where a generation of voters has grown up watching Nitish Kumar finesse his way to his sixth innings as Chief Minister, his latest moves have many wondering if he might blindside the BJP by siding with the opposition in the state elections due in the winter of 2020.
“Nitish is like a cat. He waits for his time and then only reacts. Lalu Prasad Yadav’s teeth were in his mouth. Nitish Kumar’s teeth are in his stomach,” said a former Nitish associate who is a senior member of the RJD. “Nobody has been able to read him yet.”
“Nitish Kumar always plays wait and watch politics. Whenever BJP is on the backfoot, he tries to take political advantage of the situation.”
A year ago, when the BJP swept Bihar on its way to a landslide Lok Sabha win — many predicted a dramatic reordering of the saffron party’s state-level alliances across the country. Nitish Kumar was seen as particularly vulnerable to being reduced to a minor player.
Yet the past six months have upended these calculations: In Delhi, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra, the BJP has lost three state elections in a row, and barely scraped through with a hastily put-together government in Haryana. The results in Maharashtra have been particularly instructive; written off as the BJP’s B team, the Shiv Sena surprised everyone by landing the Chief Minister’s post atop a three-way coalition with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
Both Nitish and the BJP appear alive to such speculation. Earlier this year, Home Minister Amit Shah publicly stated that Nitish would be the National Democratic Alliance’s chief ministerial face in Bihar. Nitish for his part has insisted the JDU will remain part of the NDA.
“Don’t read too much into who is meeting whom,” Nitish Kumar said at his party worker’s conclave in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on March 1. “The NDA will win more than 200 seats in Bihar in the upcoming assembly election.”
Yet, JDU leaders privately admit that the JDU is aware that the BJP’s aggressive posture on citizenship and the NRC, and its increasing reliance on communal polarisation could alienate sections of the JDU’s base.
“By passing the NPR-NRC resolution, the CM has killed three birds in one shot,” said a senior JDU leader close to Nitish. “He told BJP that he won’t be taken for granted and dropped clear signals that JDU will be a senior partner to BJP in Bihar, not an equal one.”
The resolution, the JDU leader said, had also deflated widespread anger over the proposed National Register of Citizens and the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. Opposition leaders, like Kanhaiya Kumar of the Communist Party of India, have tapped this anger to draw huge crowds to their public rallies.
The JDU has tried to allay the fears of Bihar’s Muslim community, the leader said, “But it doesn’t look like the Muslims are going to vote for JDU this time.”
The BJP has publicly tried to downplay the significance of the assembly resolution against the NRC, but appeared discomfited by the fact that they did not see it coming.
“It’s true that our MLAs were not informed or briefed about this resolution,” a top BJP functionary told HuffPost India. Even BJP president J P Nadda, who was in Bihar a few days before the Budget session began, was not told about any such resolution by Nitish, neither did Nitish give any hints about it during the NDA meet in Patna a day before the session, the BJP functionary said.
Even so, the functionary said Nitish knew he would find it difficult to win without the BJP.
“See the JDU is not a cadre-based party. Even during the Lok Sabha election, many JDU candidates could win because BJP workers worked for them,” the BJP functionary said. “They don’t have well-oiled machinery like us but like Lok Sabha, but it seems we will have to make adjustments for the alliance in the assembly polls.”
The BJP functionary has a point. On March 1, the JDU held a conclave of party workers in which the booth secretaries and booth presidents from the state’s 72,000 polling booths were expected to attend. In attendance, barely 20,000 people of an expected 140,000 showed up.
“Nitish Kumar always plays wait and watch politics,” said Santosh Singh, a senior journalist and author of Ruled or Misruled: The Story and Destiny of Bihar. “Whenever BJP is on the backfoot, he tries to take political advantage of the situation.”
The resolution against the NRC came at a time when another ally — Ramvilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) had also spoken against it, Singh said. It also helped Nitish burnish his secular credentials.
“Here BJP is giving the impression that it is on the same page with JDU because nationally they have been on backfoot,” Singh said. “They lost back to back elections. They don’t want to lose another one.”
When asked about the assembly resolution and Nitish Kumar’s attempts to assert himself, BJP’s Bihar spokesperson Nikhil Anand said, “Our Prime Minister and Home Minister have already said that there is no proposal and initiative to implement NRC. BJP is committed towards the agenda of nation-building and we have already expressed our resolve with issues like Article 370, 35A, Triple Talaq, NPR and CAA. Our NDA Govt in Bihar led by Nitish Kumar has silenced those who are trying to play their petty politics to destabilise the social harmony in the state by provoking certain sections of society. United NDA will give a befitting reply to anti-social and anti-nationals in Bihar and we will sweep 2020 Bihar polls.”