Nitish Kumar has made an extraordinarily risky political move by saying goodbye to BJP and thereby the strong upper caste lobby in Bihar.
Despite belonging to a numerically insignificant caste Kurmi, Nitish Kumar navigated the state’s politics with such skill, that from 2005, he maintained a social coalition of extremely divergent groups – ranging from the lowest Dalits to the upper castes. His alliance with the BJP was crucial to this.
Speaking at the JDU national executive in Delhi in April 2013, Nitish Kumar had outlined his philosophy regarding alliances. Alliances necessitate some compromises in the party’s programmes and politics, he had said.
“But compromises cannot be made with our fundamental articles of faith. If we are asked to make such compromises, we will not do it, regardless of the consequences involved,” he said.
Nitish said, in the event of being pushed to make such choices, electoral calculations would be irrelevant, and what matters would be one’s beliefs.
He counted secularism among such fundamentals of his principles. Though he did not say it publicly, it has been made clear that if the BJP projects Narendra Modi as prime minister, he would read it as an act incompatible with his fundamental faith.
Many view the secular rhetoric of Bihar’s politicians – Lalu Prasad Yadav included – with the scepticism that it is merely a ploy to get some Muslim votes. But what cannot be denied is the fact that Bihar is one state - which has a bloody history of communal tensions - has not had a single riot since 1989.
Many other states that often get feted for good governance have seen serious sectarian violence – Orissa, Karnataka and even Kerala, what to speak of Gujarat, in the same period.
The rush to interpret Nitish Kumar’s decision to part with the BJP as a shrewd political move to win Muslims is devoid of understanding.
On the contrary, Nitish is entering an unchartered territory where the risks far outweigh the potential rewards. And he is not a political novice to miss the lurking dangers involved. The disapproval among the upper castes for his autonomous political move has been demonstrated in the recent by-election in Maharajganj Lok Sabha constituency.
His administrative measures that helped the poorest and the most disempowered among the backward castes and Dalits may not reap him political dividends as these are small fragmented communities still threatened by the upper castes and Yadavs.
As for Muslims, they would be very tactical not to waste their votes and certainly there. Overall, his losses and risks are real; his potential gains are distant and hazy.
Therefore, one cannot explain Nitish’s actions in terms of real politics. It can either be an act of obstinacy and defiance or be an act of faith. Probably, and refreshingly, it is the second. It is actually a leap of faith.