The Lok Sabha election results will be crucial for a resurgent RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Seldom has an election carried the potential to so substantially define the political future of leaders like the current one does for the two.
With the Congress joining hands with it and Lalu claiming that his traditional social support base of his castemen Yadav and Muslim is intact, the big challenge for the RJD is whether it will improve its performance of four seats in the previous polls or the JD-U will stop its revival gameplan.
The JD-U is going it alone for the first time since 1996, after it ended its 17-year alliance with the BJP last year. The party is banking on Nitish's development card and his social engineering of extreme backward castes, Mahadalits and Muslims.
They were friends once – Lalu and Nitish. When Lalu beat odds to emerge as the Janata Party's chief ministerial nominee on March 10, 1990, the most resounding slogan raised at Patna's Brajkishore memorial hall was 'Lalu-Nitish zindabad'.
In 1994, the two fell out and Nitish formed his Samata Party. The two have dominated Bihar's politics for the past 24 years -- Lalu as chief minister or de facto ruler (1990-2004) and Nitish as CM (2005 till date).
They have remained foes for a long time now; as acerbic in their attack against each other during the current Lok Sabha poll campaigning as they were strident in targeting the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi.
Yet, as the Lok Sabha poll results start filtering in on May 16, the friends-turned-foes may be united by a shared sentiment: an escalating sense of foreboding. If a Modi-led majority regime is voted to office, the two titans may have a lot to lose -- Nitish his government and his promise as alternative PM material and Lalu his political relevance for several years to come.
Nitish has led a minority government since he decided to part ways with the BJP, the Bihar ruling coalition partner. His move was a result of a spat over Modi's anointment as the BJP's poll campaign chief.
Four independents, four Congress MLAs and a CPI MLA voted with the 118-member JD(U) legislature party to see Nitish cross the halfway mark in the 243-member Bihar House in a confidence vote he secured on June 19 last.
Since then, the actual strength of the JD (U) in the Bihar assembly has been a matter of conjecture, as three of its women MLAs are under suspension for 'anti-party activities'. A fourth one, Lalganj MLA Annu Shukla, is contesting the Lok Sabha poll against the official JD (U) nominee in Vaishali and has called for an early fall of the Nitish regime.
There is speculation that agriculture minister Narendra Singh, who has publicly said he wants to be the Bihar CM, may wean a number of JD (U) MLAs to form an alternative government, backed by 89 BJP MLAs.
The BJP is already dropping hints about the 'imminent' fall of the Nitish regime. Senior party leader Sushil Modi spoke last week of "50 JD (U) MLAs already working for his party" in the ongoing polls.
A good showing by the RJD-Congress combine may persuade the Congress to withdraw its support to Nitish in the hope that a fresh election may give it a shot at power in Bihar again as an RJD ally.
While a few RJD MLAs have broken away from the party and a few other BJP MLAs have shown inclination to back Nitish, how it will all pan out vis a vis the anti-defection law and the JD (U)'s own, possibly weak, Lok Sabha poll performance is difficult to call.
There are a few who believe the JD (U)'s Lok Sabha performance may not be all that bad for it in Bihar. "A poor JD (U) (Lok Sabha) show will weaken Nitish but it may not spell the fall of his regime, given the complications of Bihar politics," DM Diwakar, director of Patna think tank AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, said.
There is also a view that Nitish may recommend the dissolution of the Bihar assembly on May 16, or soon thereafter, to seek a fresh mandate.
This speculation is fuelled by the impression in top JD (U) circles that Muslims, who are believed to have gone with the RJD-Congress combine in this election, may shift substantially to the JD (U) in an assembly poll. "Many Muslim leaders backed the RJD-led combine as it was best suited to stop Narendra Modi, given it had the support of 14% Yadavs. Things will be different in assembly elections," a top JD (U) leader said.
Whatever the future of his government may be, it is clear that a weak Lok Sabha performance will enfeeble Nitish sufficiently to take him out of the reckoning as a powerful voice, individually, or in the nascent Third Front.
JD (U) president Sharad Yadav has already spoken of his regret about having backed 'casteist' leaders Nitish and Lalu. The blame-game within the JD(U) has been triggered following widely perceived opinion that the party has fared poorly after its split with the BJP.
Yadav was opposed to the JD(U) split with the NDA, but he reluctantly agreed to it at the instance of Kumar, a move that many fear may cause him to lose the Madhepura Lok Sabha seat in the election held on April 30.
"Thereafter, he wanted to be nominated as the JD(U) candidate in the biennial elections to the Rajya Sabha, held in February but was denied and told to contest the poll from Madhepura or Nalanda," a JD(U) leader said.
If Nitish beats the prophets of doom to lead the JD(U) to a handsome tally in the Lok Sabha polls, he may not only save his government but also emerge as a powerful Third Front player in national politics.
The same goes for Lalu who is hoping to make a strong comeback after he was unseated as Saran Lok Sabha MP following his conviction last September in a multi-crore fodder scam of the 1990s.
Out of a Ranchi jail on bail and disqualified from contesting elections, Lalu overcame the added setback of a slew of desertions from the RJD to emerge as the main anti-Modi figure in the ongoing election.
The RJD leadership is of the view that if the RJD-Congress-NCP combine wins around half of the 40 seats in Bihar -- a thought considered within the realm of possibility -- Lalu may be well be back in business.
"What he is really looking for is leverage with the new government at the Centre. A minority regime backed by him will be just what the doctor ordered," a senior RJD leader said.
However, in Diwakar's expert opinion, what Lalu desperately needs is not just the Lok Sabha numbers.
"It is as important for him that a Modi-led majority government is not voted to office. In such an eventuality, his own numbers may not be good enough," the ANSISS director argued.
If Lalu fails to get a substantive Lok Sabha number, well above the four seats the RJD won in 2009, the ongoing fodder scam cases may also return to haunt his political standing.
"Hell may break lose if the election result shows him as less than a vote winner. His own MLAs may desert him, so may the Congress, as many of its top leaders had doubts about allying with him," another RJD leader said.