With a near majority in the Bihar legislature, there was never any doubt that Nitish Kumar would sail through the confidence vote post the Janata Dal (United)’s split with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress chose to back the Chief Minister, obviously with two considerations in mind. To keep alive the possibility of a future alliance with the JD (U) in Bihar and to send a wider message to the ‘secular’ polity ahead of the 2014 general election. Mr. Kumar, though, was on a different orbit. In a reasoned speech that deliberately transcended the secular-communal debate, he pitched into Narendra Modi, accusing him of envisioning a model of India that conflicted with the egalitarian, inclusive spirit of the Constitution. The picture he painted of the Gujarat Chief Minister was of a man driven by corporate interests, focused on the well-being of the already well-to-do. Mr. Kumar said while Gujarat had always been an economic and corporate success, Bihar had done the impossible in lifting the poorest of the poor from poverty. The theme of Mr. Kumar’s speech was that he was not in a personality clash with Mr. Modi but was fighting him for the survival of India.
The Bihar Chief Minister has played his cards well. He would have stepped into a quagmire had he stuck to the usual rhetoric about communalism and secularism. Indeed, given that the BJP had pressed into circulation a CD containing Mr. Kumar’s 2003 praise of his Gujarat counterpart, he had to take the discourse to loftier heights. But in challenging Mr. Modi so vocally and fearlessly, he has also set the stage for a national debate on what constitutes the “idea of India” (Mr. Kumar’s own words) and whether the Modi phenomenon needs to be viewed through the larger prism of social welfare and justice rather than only in terms of communalism and secularism. Politically, the break-up is a gamble for the JD(U). The party and the BJP made a good electoral fit. However, the BJP might have presumed too much in claiming that with Mr. Modi in command, it will sweep Bihar on its own. In the 2010 Assembly election, the BJP did perform spectacularly, winning 91 of 102 contested seats. However, it achieved this on a minuscule vote share gain of 0.84 percentage points as compared to 2005. Mr. Kumar has his job cut out. His bravura performance was aimed at Muslims as much as the caste coalition of most backwards he has put together. An alliance with the Congress will likely consolidate this constituency but in terms of votes the Congress is not a good substitute for the BJP. Whether a larger swathe of Bihar will buy into Mr. Kumar’s vision of India remains to be seen.