By setting out on an irreversible collision course with the BJP, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is betting heavily on three social constituencies for his political survival — the lower sections of the backwards and Dalits, whom he has been trying to mobilise under the banner of Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) and Maha Dalits; and the Muslims.
If they combine their voting strengths, it will be an invincible alliance.
But this calculation is fraught with serious risks. The following are the three questions that must worry Nitish Kumar.
1. It is true that the bulk of the votes that Nitish got in the 2010 election came from the EBCs and Maha Dalits, but the nucleus of that coalition has always been upper castes, in all the elections that he won — in 2005, 2010 and the 2009 Lok Sabha.
The formation of the social confederation that Nitish heads today took shape against the Yadav-Muslim alliance that kept Lalu Prasad Yadav in power between 1990 and 2005.
Individually non-Yadav backward castes are very small, not any single group counting more than 4%.
Nitish's own Kurmis count for little alone. Collectively they make a winning combination.
But if the upper castes go with the BJP — as they are most likely to do — who will be the nucleus that would hold together these tiny groups?
It is true that the EBCs and Maha Dalits have acquired an amount of political identity due to Nitish Kumar's policies, but would they act as class for itself, and vote as a bloc even in the absence of a core vote base?
2. Moreover, there is an inherent strain within Nitish's development politics — his attempts to create a Bihari identity that cuts across castes do not fit well with his efforts to mobilise the EBCs and Dalits along caste lines.
Unlike Modi's politics of Gujarati nationalism driven by Hindu catholicism, Nitish's Bihari nationalism is still challenged by caste fault-lines. Is there a Bihari vote that he can count on?
3. The third question that must concern Kumar is whether he would be winning the Muslims vote as a thanksgiving for opposing Modi's prime ministerial ambitions.
Muslims are indeed appreciative of Nitish's inclusive politics, but in 2014 their primary concern will be to stop BJP in Delhi — even under LK Advani, which Nitish is reportedly agreeable to.
If Nitish indeed counts Congress as an "enemy party," would that win him Muslim votes?
What follows is the possibility of dramatically new social coalitions in Bihar, based on the political alliances that take shape.