For the Congress, which has been casting about for an electoral partner in Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s handsome victory in the Maharajganj by-election over the ruling Janata Dal-United does not seem to have made too much of an impression. Congress sources told The Hindu that while the party was looking for a “like-minded ally,” it wanted to wait and see whether Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) would leave the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), as well as what Lalu Prasad’s RJD offered it by way of seats.

If the JD(U) remains in the NDA and the RJD makes an unacceptable offer, the sources said, the party will even be prepared to go it alone — as it did in 2009, winning two of the 40 Lok Sabha seats. In the hard-nosed world of politics, the fact that the RJD has been one of the Congress’s most consistent friends apparently counts for little, as do the party’s staunch secular credentials.

The Congress’ calculation is based on the following logic: if it teams up with the RJD and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP), it will provide a tough fight to the JD(U)-BJP combine in a straight contest, as it will get a major chunk of Muslim votes. But, Congress sources say, the upper castes will stay away because they remain inimical to Mr. Prasad. Of course, in the Lok Sabha elections, these sources acknowledge, some upper caste votes might come their way but in the Assembly elections, the prospect of Mr. Prasad returning as Chief Minister will keep them away.

If, on the other hand, the JD(U) dumps the BJP and allies with the Congress, Bihar will see a three-cornered contest as the RJD would never tie up with the BJP. The Congress says it would then be Congress-JD(U) vs. BJP vs. RJD-LJP. Under those circumstances, the Congress believes, there would be Muslim consolidation in favour of a Congress-JD(U) line-up, and the upper castes which are now with the BJP-JD(U) combine would return to it.

Of course, the Congress having a choice of ally will hinge on Mr. Kumar’s assessment of whether he should continue with the BJP. Thus far, he has threatened to break with that party if Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.

However, a close look at the Maharajganj election reveals that the Congress’ calculations may not be entirely correct. The constituency is dominated by two upper castes — Rajputs and Bhumihars. While the RJD candidate, Prabhunath Singh, is a Rajput, the JD(U)’s nominee, State Education Minister P.K. Shahi, is a Bhumihar. For Mr. Kumar, it was an opportunity to demonstrate his hold over upper caste votes. In the run-up to the election, the JD(U) even inducted a key Rajput leader, Shailendra Pratap Singh, into the party, in the expectation that the gesture would brighten Mr. Shahi’s electoral prospects. Mr. Kumar also made up with another influential Bhumihar leader, Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan Singh, before the elections.

But, in the end, what neutralised these efforts, say RJD-LJP sources, is the fact that Indubhushan Singh, son of Ranvir Sena boss Brahmeshwar Mukhiya — who was murdered on June 1, 2012 — campaigned against the JD(U) for the failure of the State government to bring the killers to book. Brahmeshwar Mukhia was, in his time, the most powerful Bhumihar leader and his son has been trying to uphold that legacy through a front organisation of the Ranvir Sena — the Akhil Bharatiya Rashtrawadi Kisan Sanghathan.

In social terms, the JD(U)-BJP government that came to power in end-2005 represented a combination of the most economically backward castes, led by Kurmis and Koeris, and the upper castes, dominated by Bhumihars. Once the Bhumihar interests began to be taken care of by the government, its members no longer needed trigger-happy organisations such as the Ranvir Sena to protect their land from Maoist groups that had the backing of Kurmis and Dalits.

Five years later, in 2010, the BJP that brings upper caste votes to the Nitish Kumar government, won a whopping 91 of the 102 seats it contested, while the JD(U) secured 115 of the 141 seats — in short, the BJP’s score rate was much higher than the JD(U)’s.

But over the last year, with the Bhumihars demanding that Brahmeshwar Singh's murderers be brought to book swiftly, Mr. Kumar’s stock among members of the community has dipped, possibly exacerbated by his worsening relations with the BJP.

In short, if the Maharajganj election does not prove that Mr. Prasad can secure upper caste votes — if one grants that Mr. Prabhunath Singh has his own support base — the campaign does point to Mr. Kumar’s loosening hold over an upper caste community that has backed his government since 2005, and ensured a degree of peace in the State.

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