Eye on Elections, Nitish Kumar Tries to Woo Muslims but Friendship With BJP, Altered Status Pose a Hurdle

Ashok Mishra
·6-min read

Ahead of the crucial Bihar assembly elections, Union minister of state for home affairs and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nityanand Rai courted a controversy by stating that Bihar would become a safe haven for militants from Kashmir if the opposition alliance led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) won the elections.

While such a strong and considered statement by a Union minister may help the BJP in consolidating its vote bank, it is certainly going to harm its main ally -- the Janata Dal (U), which has been consciously trying to woo Muslims in this election even while keeping the BJP by its side.

In a bid to cajole the minorities, JD(U) president and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been citing his government’s initiatives such as scholarships to students in government-affiliated madrasas, promotion of Urdu language, fencing of graveyards, re-opening of the Bhagalpur riots cases and setting up the NN Singh Commission for probing these cases, besides Rs 2,500 per month as compensation to the riot victims.

“My government has done honest service of the Muslim community through concrete measures whereas the opposition parties have done nothing worthwhile but only sought their votes. We believe in the progress of all. We treat Bihar as a family,” Kumar says in his election rallies.

The attempt to woo the Muslims has been resolutely intensified ever since it dawned on the JD(U) leadership that the BJP might play a trick after the elections if it emerges as the single-largest party. The rebellion on part of Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Chirag Paswan and his blistering attack on Nitish Kumar has only underscored this distrust of the JD(U) leadership.

Chirag has throughout been maintaining that he has nothing against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a BJP-LJP government might be formed after the polls. He has also fielded candidates mainly on seats being contested by the JD(U) except a few where the BJP is contesting.

Though Kumar seems desperate in the race of becoming the single-largest party with the help of Muslim votes, he faces credibility crisis among the Muslim community due to his frequent somersaults to remain in power. Muslims had voted for him because he was a ‘big brother’ in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and ran the alliance and the government on his own terms keeping his secular credentials intact.

But his stature of an ‘equal partner’ in the Bihar NDA has been diminished ever since he re-joined the NDA in 2017 to form the government with the help of the BJP. As the BJP increased its vote share in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the saffron outfit adopted an aggressive posture to increase its popularity by consolidating the non-Muslim votes.

The Muslim voters’ preference has also changed with the changing equations between the JD(U) and the BJP. Kumar enjoyed support of the Muslim community in the 2015 assembly elections mainly because of his association with the RJD and Congress as part of the Grand Alliance. The JD(U) had secured nearly 17 per cent votes which also counts the traditional votes of the RJD-Congress combine, including the Muslims, whereas the BJP had garnered 24 per cent votes on its own.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the JD(U) and BJP contested on 17 seats each out of 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, leaving six for the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). The BJP won all the 17 seats it contested while the JD(U) won 16 seats and the LJP six seats. The contribution of the Muslims in the JD(U) vote share was almost negligible because its lone Muslim candidate from Kishanganj, Syed Mahmood Ashraf, lost to Congress nominee Dr Muhammad Javed.

This time, the JDU and BJP are contesting on almost equal seats. While the BJP has no Muslim face in the list of 110 seats it is contesting, the JD(U) has fielded altogether 11 candidates from the Muslim community and 18 from the Yadav caste out of the 115 seats of its quota. Kumar has made a sagacious attempt to consolidate his Extremely Backward Caste (EBC) vote base while trying to make a dent into the Muslim-Yadav combination, the bedrock of RJD’s support base.

But the JD(U) does not have any prominent Muslim face like it had in the past. The JD(U) had successfully tried to drive a wedge in the Muslim monolith in 2005 when it had roped in backward Muslim leaders like Ali Anwar, Ejaz Ali and others. Anwar was leader of the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, a body championing the cause of the backward Muslims. Anwar was rewarded with Rajya Sabha nominations twice for his untiring efforts to woo the votes of the backward Muslims.

At present, the JD(U) has only one Muslim face, Ghulam Rasool Baliyawi, but his stature is too weak to make any considerable influence on the Muslim vote bank.

The extent of damage among the minorities’ vote base would be assessed in seats where the JD(U) has fielded Muslim candidates. If the BJP cadres and supporters vote for them, it would be a cakewalk for the JD(U) otherwise the party will have to face tough challenges on all such seats. As Muslims have alienation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP cadres are averse to voting for Muslim candidates.

Kumar had tried to hold on to Muslim votes by opposing the Triple Talaq Bill and abrogation of provisions of Article 370. However, the JD(U) supported the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament. The Citizenship Amendment Bill, which is now an Act, allows citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh after facing religious persecution. But it does not include the Muslims.

The ‘Mahagathbandhan’ led by the RJD-Congress combine is confident of getting chunk of the Muslim votes but the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by firebrand leader Asaduddin Owaisi is also expected to gain support of the Muslim community in the Seemanchal region. The AIMIM has entered into an alliance with Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) led by Upendra Kushwaha and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayawati.

The AIMIM has been trying to make its presence felt in the Seemanchal region close to Bangladesh, Nepal and West Bengal. But it failed to win any of the six seats it contested in the 2015 assembly elections. However, party’s Qamrul Hoda later won from Kishanganj in a bypoll.

The Muslims' voting pattern changed considerably in the November 2005 assembly elections when a section of Muslims, particularly the weaker section among the minorities, supported the JD(U) nominees wherever possible. This time also, the JD(U) is targeting the lower caste Muslims like Lalbegis, Halalkhors and Mehtars who had sided with the NDA more than anyone else.

Muslims hold the key in over 100 assembly seats and their population exceeds 20 per cent in districts like Kishanganj, Purnea, Katihar, Araria, Supaul, Madhepura, Saharsa, Madhubani and Darbhanga. It is more than 40 per cent in at least 12 constituencies and in constituencies like Kochadhaman and Amour, the Muslim voters account for more than 74 per cent of the electorate.

The belligerent stance of the BJP has the potential to cause anxiety to the JD(U) as the standing of Nitish Kumar has been reduced to ‘Sautela Bhai’ (Step brother) from his previous role as ‘Bade Bhai’ (Elder brother) in the Bihar NDA.

The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.