Ritesh K Srivastava
By ending the 17-year-old political alliance with the BJP, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his party Janata Dal-U have taken a great risk and ventured into an unchartered territory.
On the other hand, with just two allies - Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal – the future of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) also looks uncertain. Clearly, the BJP’s quest for 272 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 looks a tad more unachievable.
While the bitter BJP-JD-U divorce has disintegrated the NDA, the development has also given birth to new equations in Bihar’s caste-based politics.
The social engineering formula that helped Nitish Kumar weave a successful coalition of divergent groups has disintegrated with the upper caste voters going along with the BJP.
Although, at this juncture, it would be difficult to guess which party or coalition will benefit the most from the BJP-JD-U split, the RJD led by Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Congress will certainly try to take the maximum advantage of the situation.
For the RJD, which managed to win only 22 of the total 243 assembly seats and four of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the last polls, the BJP-JD-U split provides a tantalising opportunity to consolidate its vote bank.
JD-U’s recent loss in the Maharajganj Lok Sabha by-polls, which saw RJD candidate Prabhunah Singh win by a record margin, has also emboldened Lalu Prasad Yadav, who had termed this as the beginning of the end of the Nitish rule in Bihar.
As for the Congress, Narendra Modi as the official face of the BJP, provides it with an opportunity to regain the Muslim vote bank – the community may vote as a block to keep Modi out - in electorally crucial states of Bihar and UP, where it has lost ground to Lohiaites.
There is no denying the fact that Nitish Kumar had managed to win two consecutive terms mainly by banking on the BJP’s upper caste votes - about 14 % - alongside the support of Kurmis - 3-4% combined with the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) and Maha Dalits (non-Paswan Dalits).
Aware that the Kurmis, the community to which he belongs are numerically insignificant, Kumar has sought to weave a discourse around Bihari pride by repeatedly demanding special status for his economically weak state.
But will ‘Bihari pride’ work in Nitish Kumr’s favour and help him defeat his arch-rival Lalu Prasad or whether the BJP can ensure the arrow misses aim, only time will tell.
However, if the political observers are to be believed, the split is more likely to hurt the BJP as the ‘Hindutva’ ideology has had limited success in Bihar.
Also, Nitish Kumar, who once said that alliances necessitate some compromises, calculated that he would have to pay a heavy price – losing support of Muslims – if he kept silent on the elevation of Modi in the BJP.
Accepting Modi would have also meant that he endorsed the hard-line Hindutva, of the sort Modi is associated with.
Whatever be the view, Nitish’s talk of secularism appears to be a ploy to appease the minorities and garner support of Muslim voters.
In that sense too, Nitish Kumar’s decision to sever ties with the BJP is being seen as a well-calibrated move aimed at winning Muslims. However, one should also not forget that the Bihar Chief Minister is too seasoned a politician to be ignorant of the potential threats emanating from it.
His autonomous move to part ways with the BJP can be rewarding or even punishing - an indication in this regard came recently when the upper caste voters rejected the JD-U candidate in the Maharajganj Lok Sabha by-polls.
Nitish’s strong governance and administrative skills might have earned him a good reputation and benefitted the most neglected and the backward sections of Bihar, but all this would still not be enough for the JD-U to make big political gains without the support of a wide section of the society.
The backward castes and the Maha-Dalits, which are the main stay of Nitish’ social engineering formula, may not ensure victory given the fact that they are numerically less significant and fragmented.
After the BJP-JD-(U) split, Rahul Gandhi asked Nitish Kumar to join the secular front, but aligning with the Congress is not a good option considering the blame game between Bihar government and the UPA regime over the step-motherly treatment towards the state.
In such a scenario, Nitish Kumar’s party would prefer to not stitch any pre-poll alliance with the Congress and his desperation to form a Federal Front along with the disgruntled former allies of the UPA shows his uneasiness in going with the Grand Old Party. Also, at the home front, he will have to placate those JD-U workers who are not happy with the split.
As far as the BJP is concerned, the saffron party will try to get a major chunk of the upper caste votes, especially those of the Bhumihars. At the same time, it would also like to make a dent into JD (U)`s traditional EBC-OBC vote base.
While the BJP-JD-U split has given the Lalu Yadav a chance to attack the Nitish government, it has also brought forth the inevitability of the imminent push by Nitish Kumar to break into RJD’s traditional Muslim vote bank.
Though Nitish snapped ties with the BJP invoking Modi`s name, taking a stand against the Gujarat strongman will not be enough. He will have to answer why his party sailed with the BJP in the same boat after 2002 Godhra riots, in which a large number of Muslims were killed.
On his part, the RJD chief will try his best to garner support of the upper caste. Even if a percentage of Muslim voters turn away from him, Lalu will also try to split Nitish`s EBC-OBC votes.
In a triangular contest, where BJP, JD-U and RJD will work to cobble up new equations and weaken each other’s vote bank in the upcoming polls; who knows Congress may emerge as a final winner.
In the event of BJP failing to win the magic figure of 272 seats under Modi’s leadership, the possibility of Congress-led UPA managing to take on board regional parties, including the RJD and the JD-U, in the name of secularism to form the next government is a real possibility.
JD-U and RJD on the same side of the ring? In Bihar politics, nothing is impossible, especially when 2014 is set to turn out to be the make-or-break polls for all the stake holders.