Amit Shah, union Home Minister and pilot of the deeply flawed Citizenship Amendment Bill (and earlier the striking down of Article 370 which confiscates Kashmir's special status) has certainly exposed the reality of the transactional politics that now govern the country.
The key takeaway from yesterday was the cross-voting by the opposition in the Rajya Sabha in favour of the bill - and not by those who would be reckoned the usual suspects.
Sharad Pawar's NCP had opposed the bill, yet had two MPs melting away when the crucial vote was taken. Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) gave up all pretence of protecting minority rights, the badge its leader has flashed for his many terms as Bihar Chief Minister, and voted for the bill after vociferously defending it in the House. Nitish Kumar apparently tried to have his cake and eat it too when trusted consigliere, retired diplomat Pawan Verma, publicly asked him to reconsider supporting the contentious bill, creating surround sound of a split in the party on this matter.
Another trusted Nitish Kumar aide, Prashant Kishor, who is vice-president of the party and is known for offering an "ideology agnostic" consultancy to leaders across the spectrum seemed to make a public break with Kumar over secular politics. Whether or not it's deliberate, all this helps provide Nitish Kumar with some cover.
While Nitish Kumar, who earlier counted on Muslim voters to remain in power, supported the CAB, the Shiv Sena which just ended a thirty-year-long alliance with the BJP and is founded on aggressive Hindutva, had to watch its step. Now that the Sena is running a government in Maharashtra with the Congress and Sharad Pawar as partners, it could not provide blanket support for the bill, seen by critics as anti-Muslim. The Sena therefore split the difference - in the Lok Sabha, it voted in favour of the bill; after Rahul Gandhi made it clear that this was not acceptable, Sena MPs walked out of the Rajya Sabha at the time of the vote, exercising a compromise formula that does not sit naturally with its leaders.
This came after Amit Shah mocked them in the House and Congress leaders spent the day dialling Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar, the mastermind of the Maharashtra government, about the "anger in the Congress party." Congress MLAs, enjoying the fruits of the unexpected government in Maharashtra, were a tense lot all day as reports spread of a possible break in the alliance over the Sena's stand on CAB. Congress state chief Balasaheb Thorat met Thackeray to work out a deal on Wednesday.
Rahul Gandhi's anger, which was the big political cloud over the Maharashtra government, seemed to dissipate by the evening with Pawar calling Sonia Gandhi and NCP leader Praful Patel meeting Congress treasurer Ahmed Patel to explain that the Sena was being tackled.
Sources say Ahmed Patel told the NCP's Praful Patel that he was not able to speak for Rahul Gandhi but the Congress was not in favour of pulling down the painstakingly formed Maharashtra government.
The two NCP MLAs who went AWOL during the vote were intended as Pawar's demonstration that his party members have the leeway to express differences. The threat to pull the plug on the Maharashtra government ended when senior Congress leader P Chidambaram said that he was happy that the Sena had not voted in the Rajya Sabha for CAB.
Shah and the BJP justify three recent big moves - banning Triple Talaq, the repeal of Article 370 and now CAB - as the fulfilling of promises made during their campaign. Never mind that the BJP's manifesto which contains these and also a uniform civil code is at variance to the Constitution.
The BJP is now left with two allies - the Akali Dal and Nitish Kumar's JDU. "Shah is making our situation extremely difficult in Bihar," a senior JDU leader told me. "Muslims have always voted for Kumar and now by forcing us to support bills which are an attack on minorities, the BJP is making us look bad." However, Nitish Kumar is not considering breaking up with the BJP over this even as critics and even some within his own party point out that his assiduously cultivated image of a leader guided by his conscience has been replaced by that of a politician willing to do anything to remain in power. "Kumar will never leave us. We have proved he is Kursi Kumar (wedded to his designation)," said a BJP leader from Bihar.
By fulfilling its core promises, the BJP is unifying its base; it is also counting on emerging as the sole party dedicated to the Hindu Samaj as envisioned by the RSS, its mentor. The bonus for the party is that the bad news on the economy simply does not matter as the headlines are now focusing on other issues like CAB.
As for the other parties, the Maharashtra government will continue and so will the Nitish Kumar-BJP alliance. Sleeping with the enemy is the new normal in Indian politics.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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