For the political journalist who thrives on caste arithmetic, Bihar is perhaps the last refuge. Even on a whistle-stop visit to Patna to interview the Bihar chief minister, every conversation veers to the impact of Nitish Kumar’s decision to part ways with the BJP. For the rest of India, the battle maybe couched as a Nitish Kumar versus Narendra Modi personality clash; in Bihar, it is seen through the prism of caste.
The big question being asked is: can Nitish sustain the social coalition he has so assiduously cultivated in the last decade or will the break-up with the BJP create a new caste and community matrix?
Which is why no trip to Bihar is complete without meeting the original master of the caste calculus: RJD chief Lalu Prasad. These aren't the best of times for Lalu. There is a strong possibility he will be convicted and jailed in the fodder scam next month. His party has shrunk and despite a recent win in the Maharajganj by-election, the fact is, his political fortunes are at a low ebb. But his generosity of spirit is intact.
Over endless cups of nimbu chai, Lalu surrounded by a handful of acolytes, questions Nitish's commitment to 'secularism'. "I am the original secularist, baaki sab nautanki hai," he says with a unique style reminiscent of his glory days.
That 'glorious' period of Lalu Raj was in the 1990s when Bihar's politics underwent a dramatic shift. With the unflinching support of his Yadav caste, Lalu inverted Bihar's caste pyramid, creating a new power structure that broke the stranglehold of the Brahmin-Bhumihar-Kayastha leadership. The state's 16 per cent Yadavs were supported by an 18 per cent Muslim vote, making M-Y an almost unbeatable combination.
A critical element in this transformation was Lalu's decision to arrest BJP leader LK Advani during his Rath Yatra in 1990. "I was the only one with the guts to arrest Advani," claims Lalu, "No Muslim in Bihar has ever forgotten that."
Is 2013, 1990 all over again? Can Nitish do a Lalu by winning the hearts and minds of Bihar's Muslims with his decision to break with the BJP over Narendra Modi's elevation? Will Modi be to Nitish what Advani was to Lalu, a political hate figure who can be used to consolidate the Muslim vote in his favour? In the answer to that question lies the key to whether Nitish can succeed or whether he has, as Lalu insists, committed political suicide.
On the face of it, you cannot get two more contrasting personalities than Nitish and Lalu. Both emerged from the womb of the JP anti-Emergency students movement of the 1970s. Both are children of the Mandal revolution, and yet, both are literally chalk and cheese. Lalu was always the more charismatic, flamboyant mass leader, a great communicator who revelled in the glare of the camera.
Nitish was, by contrast, a soft-spoken political thinker and strategist, deeply uncomfortable with the overt machismo of the Lalu brand of politics. Nitish was always a bit of a loner, Lalu revelled in the company of sycophants. Lalu was a dynast, keen to perpetuate family rule where Nitish deliberately kept his family away from politics. Lalu's politics was driven by election rhetoric; Nitish was offering administrative efficiency.
In a sense, it was easier for Lalu to play the caste game at election time because he belonged to a dominant backward caste and had the personality to impose himself on his loyal following. Nitish, by contrast, was from the numerically smaller and scattered Kurmi community and therefore needed to invest much more time and effort in building a social structure that would include the extremely backward castes, the Mahadalits and the backward Muslims. Even then, he needed the support of the BJP's traditional upper castes before he could aspire to topple his partner-turned-rival, Lalu.
Which is why Nitish without the BJP has taken a high-risk gamble. Not only does he risk alienating the upper castes who had helped decimate the Lalu regime, but he also now will have to compete with Lalu for the affection of the Muslim vote. The Bihari Muslim has traditionally felt economically deprived and socially discriminated against. He doesn't harbour any notions of ruling class grandeur like a section of the UP Muslims might.
Lalu gave the Bihari Muslim a feeling of physical security but little else. He could not provide him a sense of real empowerment that comes only with quality education and jobs. The limits of the Lalu revolution were exposed by the fact that the economic condition of the average Bihari Muslim did not improve right through the 1990s.
Nitish is offering a paradigm shift in this traditional political model of wooing the Muslim through handouts and sloganeering. Yes, there is the ritualistic symbolism that he too will observe with iftaar parties and wearing a topi. And yes, he is also holding the bogey of Modi as prime minister to scare Muslims. But he is also talking of "inclusive" governance and of making the Bihari Muslim an integral part of the state's growth story.
The vaulting aspirations of Bihar's gen-next have meant that Muslims too need to be provided more than just Modi-bashing to be wooed. To give an example. The Bihar government has undertaken a massive highway project along the Indo-Nepal border, across districts with large Muslim populations. When completed, it will be a road network that could transform the economy of one of the most neglected areas in the country. It could also become a silent vote catcher.
Postscript: Through a 90-minute interview, Nitish refused to once mention Modi by name. "That is for you to analyse, not for me to say," is the response. The shadow boxing is likely to continue for a while, but the terms of engagement have been set. Modi, whether directly or by proxy, will loom large in the battle for Bihar and India.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal