Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad are back together after 20 years and have the Congress for company in a ‘Grand Alliance’, but will it be enough to tame the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance in Bihar?
The answer will come soon enough, after the by-elections to 10 seats in the state on August 21.
Socially and economically, Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu represent two equal and powerful caste groupings. They have been rivals — socially and politically — and even inimical.
Arithmetically, the alliance is an overwhelming social formation. They were splintered during the Lok Sabha elections. Added up, they polled more than 10.07 million votes, which is 44.3% as against BJP-led NDA’s 38.8%.
Vaishali legislator and education and public relations minister Brishen Patel underlined this, pointing out that in the 2010 assembly elections, the ‘Grand Alliance’ partners had together polled 49.83% votes against the 23.21% of the new NDA which includes Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party.
This arithmetic is what the new alliance is counting on to keep the BJP at bay, restore the primacy of ‘social justice group’, as Lalu and Nitish put it at Vaishali on Monday, where they joined hands.
This was symbolic too because their coming together happened in Paswan’s backyard, in the upper caste and Dalit-dominated hamlet of Jamalpur, 26 km north of Patna.
Read: Nitish keeps speech crisp, Lalu tries to make light of PM Modi
The upper castes and Dalits had voted heavily against the new grouping in a fractured social justice setting during the Lok Sabha elections.
DM Diwakar, director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences, Patna, sees ‘great potential’ in the new combine, “which would bring together larger social justice and middle castes”.
There is, however, disquiet in the RJD and JD-U rank and file.
For one, the Congress, an equal partner in the by-election line up, was not represented at the campaign launch.
Even party workers at the grass roots are wondering how Kurmis and Yadavs — mutually antagonistic groups — can be bound to one platform, irrespective of the unquestioned charisma of Lalu and Nitish.
Nitish sought to address such concerns, saying, “Irrespective of the jokes that they (BJP) frame for me and Prasad, and the many questions on whether we will ever agree to share the state, we have done it.
“Our being together should put a full stop to such conjectures. We cannot rest on the past, but should dwell on the future. The ‘problems’ before the country of being riven by communalism and divisive forces, far outweigh our mutual antagonisms. We were together, we are together.”
Lalu went ahead and described Nitish as 'parivar' (family).
There are, however, many imponderables before the new ‘Grand Alliance’.
Primarily, will the entire vote base of the Lok Sabha polls come together to help it beat BJP?
Read: Modi factor unites bitter rivals Lalu and Nitish
Then, then is also the concern that over 40% of the Dalits had gone the NDA way despite the Nitish regime’s efforts for their empowerment and social development.
Even Lalu’s Yadavs had split heavily during the general election, making for his loss at Chapra and Patliputra. Nitish’s Kurmis had been similarly splintered in Nalanda, where a defeat was barely avoided in the face of the Narendra Modi ‘NaMo’ wave.
The comfort comes from the three parties being together and the assurance this time that the Muslim base will not split.
Muslims will not have a big say in the bypolls and constituency delimitations have put the NDA at an advantage in some places including Vaishali.
Sushil Kumar Modi, deputy chief minister in Nitish’s cabinet when the BJP and JD-U were in the NDA, described the ‘Grand Alliance’ as ‘unholy’ and ‘unmaintainable’.
“It is Jungle Raj-2,” he argued passionately at Rohtas, reminding of how the JD-U and the BJP had fought together for the mandate to demolish “Jungle Raj-1 led by Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi”.
“Yeh mangal sey jungle hai (from good to jungle raj),” he said. “Such a big betrayal of the overwhelming people’s mandate of 2010 has not been seen in Indian politics. That's why they lost the last time, they will again.”
BJP state president, Mangal Pandey said, “It’s fear of the BJP and a cosmetic coming together of individually weak political formations with the only agenda to stop BJP. It will not succeed.”
Yet, the NDA is clearly worried by the new grouping. Privately, senior leaders said, “No one can predict this one”.
JD-U state chief Basistha Narain Singh said, “It’s not about mathematics. It’s about a totally aligned social philosophy and coming together of social justice forces against the BJP, which represents communal mindsets.”
Chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi was more articulate. He said, “The talk about Lalu’s jungle raj is empty talk. That was another time, this is another.”
The by-elections will test all the formulations.
The BJP, which has talked of sweeping all 10 seats, is working without a Narendra Modi wave. It will have to labour much harder to keep the momentum going and prove that the last results were not a flash in the pan.
Losses in the by-elections could set the BJP back heavily and make it difficult to attain the 175-seat mark (out of the total 243) it is aiming for from the state in the 2015 assembly elections.
For the ‘Grand Alliance’, failure could mean dissidents getting stronger to the extent of completely splitting the RJD and the JD-U to the advantage of the BJP.
It could spell the political demise of both Lalu and Nitish and make for an irreversible situation in 2015.
There is also the national impact of this small political essay to contend with. Considering that 90% of voters in Bihar are rural, neither can afford to be ‘non-serious’ about the by-elections — the first step to success in 2015 assembly polls.
A ‘Grand Alliance’ win in Bihar, coming on the heels of Uttarakhand by-election loss for the BJP, could spark off a realignment of anti-NDA forces.
Lalu even made the suggestion, appealing to Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati to team up to defeat the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats.
If Mulayam, Mayawati and Congress do get together, it could mean the BJP’s successful experiment with emphasis on OBC-Dalit combination in Lok Sabha coming unstuck.
A thumping BJP win on the other hand in Bihar, even with a realignment of rivals, will give it positive vibes heading into a series of assembly elections this year and create a strong launchpad for Bihar in 2015.