Until June last year, Nitish Kumar was Bihar’s tallest leader, the hero who lifted the State from its crushing poverty and rewrote its destiny. Under his chief ministership, Bihar transformed itself from a basket case to one of India’s fastest-growing economies. When Mr. Kumar broke up with the Bharatiya Janata Party, his ally of many years, it was in the belief that the BJP needed him more than he needed that party. However, almost in the blink of an eye, the wheel of fortune was reversed, and today, on the eve of the general election, the Janata Dal(United) leader is judged to be fighting with his back to the wall. With the collapse of the successful BJP-JD(U) alliance, Bihar looks poised for a three-way contest featuring two alliances and the JD(U) on its own. A surprise recent development has been the joining of forces between the BJP and the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party. Mr. Paswan was considered a sure bet for inclusion in the Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal alliance, and indeed this pact had been treated as a given, till the LJP leader made the switch. The LJP’s long-standing relationship with the RJD aside, it was the first party to quit the National Democratic Alliance protesting the Gujarat anti-Muslim violence of 2002.
The LJP will hardly qualify as a heavyweight, and yet its return to the NDA under Narendra Modi carries a symbolism beyond the party’s size if only because the move is seen to have ended the Gujarat Chief Minister’s political isolation. It is apparent enough that, as in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh Mr.Modi’s stars are on the ascendant in Bihar; besides drawing good crowds, he appears to have rejigged the caste coalition that made the JD(U) and the BJP a winning combination. The JD(U) and the BJP were a perfect fit with the former’s backward caste base complementing the BJP’s support among forward castes. The split was expected to favour Mr. Kumar but the opposite seems to have happened, with Mr. Modi managing to dent the Bihar Chief Minister’s backward caste support. Mr. Kumar’s articulated opposition to Mr. Modi has made him a natural part of the ‘third alternative’, but in Bihar itself he seems to have overestimated the dividends from targeting the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. In an added advantage to the BJP and Mr. Modi, the Muslim vote looks set to be split between the JD(U) and the RJD-Congress alliance. Mr. Kumar seems unfazed, undoubtedly because of his conviction that he took a morally correct stand. Whatever his fate in the election, Mr. Kumar’s real test will come 18 months from now — when he faces the Assembly election. For now, the BJP seems in the lead with the anti-Modi vote splintering between the JD(U) and the RJD-Congress.