United by their disappointing performance in the Lok Sabha election, Bihar’s big rival parties, the JD(U) and the RJD have drawn closer. The RJD’s Lalu Prasad has expressed unconditional support to the JD(U) under its new chief minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi, ahead of the trust vote in the assembly. On the face of it, this looks a replay of a 20-year-old confrontation, a coming together of old Janata parivar forces to resist “the communal challenge” of the new and improved BJP. With the RJD’s 21 MLAs backing the JD(U)’s 117, the state government is assured of a comfortable majority. More far-reaching benefits in terms of vote banks, though, are not so easy to guarantee.
Even if a JD(U)-RJD alliance were to materialise, it would be less than the sum of its parts. Both had worked on winning social combinations; Lalu used to have the support of the Muslim population along with his core constituency of Yadavs, while Nitish Kumar has worked out his own combination with Mahadalits (a set of 21 Scheduled Castes) and EBCs, hoping to skim off OBCs, upper castes and Muslims as well. But this election is a reminder than winning requires more than a mechanical soldering together of votebanks, which are themselves becoming less predictable with the new aspirational vote that prioritises education, employment, health, social benefits and infrastructure, rather than group calculation. It will now take a new political imagination, not just social arithmetic, to pull off a victory.
There will be hurdles in the way. Nitish, after all, pitched himself as the anti-Lalu, someone who would redeem Bihar from the misgovernance, corruption and insecurity of previous regimes. His appeal waned in his second term only as memories of the Lalu years grew dim, and his administration began to be measured against his own dramatic successes. For Nitish to ally with the RJD, then, will require a willing suspension of judgement by his voters. Lalu too will have to introspect on why he has been so comprehensively bested, first by Nitish and now by Narendra Modi. With the assembly election coming up next year, both parties will have to think beyond mathematical tinkering, and rework their politics first.