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Silent Parties, Anxious Voters: CAA-NRC-NPR and Bihar Election

Buddhadeb Halder |
Citizenship may not feature prominently on the political agendas of parties, but it is still a critical electoral issue in Bihar.
Bihar election

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s party Janata Dal United (JDU)  helped the BJP government pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, in both houses of Parliament last year, and a day later, on 11 December, President Ram Nath Kovind gave his consent to the bill, turning it into an Act. However, popular sentiment about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, 2019, was somewhat different all over the country including Bihar. In December 2019, thousands of people took to the streets in six districts of Bihar namely Bhagalpur, Patna, Samastipur, Darbhanga, East Champaran and Araria and protested against the CAA.

In the middle of January this year, Nitish Kumar broke his month-long silence on the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and claimed he was open to a debate on the CAA in the Bihar Assembly. On NRC, Nitish Kumar stressed “there was no question of, nor need for, implementing it in Bihar”. He also sent a clear message to minorities, who make up about 17% of the population of the state, that they had nothing to worry about the CAA so long as he was around.

However, the Muslim voters of Bihar have questioned the intentions of Nitish Kumar over the CAA and NRC, as they find a clear link between NPR, NRC and CAA—which Home Minister Amit Shah, with characteristic clarity, has also said are part of an inter-connected chronology of implementation.

To rewind to November 2018, Nitish Kumar had then claimed “there are no differences between the JD(U) and the BJP on political and administrative issues in Bihar”. As expected, now, for the coming state Assembly election, the Bihar Chief Minister has forged a place for his party within the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). In fact the seat-sharing deal was recently announced by him, as the leader of the NDA front in Bihar. The BJP has been allotted 121 seats and JD(U) 122, of which seven seats have been given to the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) of former state chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi. Manjhi, too, has participated in several anti-CAA protests and rallies.

Even though Nitish Kumar and Manjhi had raised their voice against CAA, NRC and NPR, the Home Minister said at a rally in Lucknow in January this year that protests may continue but the CAA will not be revoked. Just seven months later, as the election in Bihar looms, JD(U) and HAM have hitched their wagons to the BJP-led NDA. Their decision raises the question whether their participation in anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests or their opposition to the CAA, NRC and NPR was nothing but an act, or posturing to gain support from voters before the election season dawned. Opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has also criticised Nitish Kumar for this “U-turn” on CAA.

As the central government is determined to implement nationwide NRC and CAA, it is anticipated that if the NDA comes to power in Bihar in the forthcoming election, the Centre will create pressure on the new Bihar government to implement CAA and NRC in the state.

The Lok Janshakti Party’s national president Chirag Paswan is a strong supporter of CAA and NRC. He also has an excellent working relationship with the BJP. However, within two weeks of CAA clearing the Parliament hurdle, after witnessing anti-CAA protests across the country, including in Bihar, Paswan suggested “we should respect protester’s views and their protests” and called it the “responsibility of our government” to do so. But again in early February he spoke in Parliament against the anti-CAA protesters and strongly criticised and blamed opposition parties for “creating” an “environment of fear” in the country. Within a week, when the Delhi Assembly poll results revealed the resounding defeat of the BJP-led NDA, he accepted that it had been a “mistake” to focus on Shaheen Bagh and target the anti-CAA protesters.

Paswan supported the CAA and NRC and criticised opposition parties inside Parliament, but outside Parliament, before the media, he used an apologetic tone on the same issues. Possibly, he was preparing his LJP for the election in Bihar, where two in ten voters are Muslim. 

The LJP was in the NDA coalition during the 2015 Assembly election in Bihar, but it has decided to fight the coming election alone. That said, it should be kept in mind that in these polls the LJP is not contesting against the BJP but the JD(U), its rival in the state. All said and done, the LJP will extend support to the BJP after the election. (Also, interestingly, LJP has decided to filed BJP leader Rajendra Singh, who was denied a ticket from the Dinara seat, given as part of the BJP-JD(U) seat-sharing formula.)

Therefore, the LJP is playing safe over the issue of CAA, NRC and NPR. Chirag Paswan has not uttered even a word about them in recent times. On the one hand, the LJP expects to bag Muslim votes. On the other, it needs a national party like the BJP to stay relevant. If LJP wins enough seats in this election and chooses to join the NDA alliance in Bihar, a real possibility would emerge that Chirag Paswan, who calls himself “Modi’s Hanuman”, would strongly support the CAA, NRC and NPR. And, Muslim, Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Class-dominated Bihar would see another Assam in India. For, millions of residents of Bihar would feel the threat of losing their citizenship and potentially becoming stateless. 

The outcome of the Delhi election had clearly indicated that voters are not keen to elect parties which polarise communities. A large section of society was disappointed because of the violence in Delhi in February and the inaction of the central government in that context. Before the COVID-19 lockdown, the CAA was considered one of the main factors in the Bihar election. However, mismanagement of the pandemic and mishandling the concerns of migrant workers, rising unemployment and the new farm bills have made CAA and NRC seem less important to politicians. 

While at this moment CAA, NRC and NPR are not topmost on the agendas of political leaders, they still are highly important election issues in Bihar—not only for Muslim voters but for Dalit and Adivasi voters too. Take for instance Mohammed Mazhar Hossain, a voter and resident of the Qureshi Mohalla in Aurangabad, Bihar. He can be heard saying in a recent widely-watched video report, “Passing the resolution not to implement NRC in Bihar was just a drama… When the election will get over, JDU-led NDA government will implement NRC in Bihar.” He also accuses the administration of having “carried out violence” in his area, including beating women, children and senior citizens, during the anti-NRC movement. He goes on, “Once Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said he will not implement NRC, then again he grabbed Modi’s hand through the back door. If he didn’t want to implement it, then why did he support it [in Parliament]...” 

Other political parties of Bihar, such as the RJD, Congress and left outfits are strong within the present Grand Alliance coalition in the state. Its constituents have voted against the CAA in Parliament and also protested and rallied against the CAA outside Parliament. These parties do not support the NRC process either. Thus, it is expected that if the Grand Alliance comes to power, it will not implement CAA and NRC in Bihar. At the same time, if it does not come to power, the Grand Alliance will need a strategy to protect the citizenship rights of minorities, Dalits, the marginalised and other citizens. 

The author is a post-doctoral research associate with the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, “Reimagining citizenship: The politics of citizenship amendment act in Indiaat the University of York. The views are personal

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