The “secular” grouping of the JD(U), RJD and Congress has announced a seat-sharing formula for the forthcoming Bihar assembly election that has set to rest doubts about the survival of the alliance. The big two of the alliance will contest 100 seats each, leaving 40 to the Congress and three to the NCP, which has threatened to walk out. Still, the early conclusion of the seat-sharing arrangement gives the alliance some advantage in the campaign. It also creates a positive impression about its cohesiveness.
The alliance is a potential winner if caste arithmetic and past vote shares of its constituent parties hold good. But an electoral alliance need not necessarily translate into an aggregation of the vote bases of the constituents, especially if it lacks chemistry. The challenge before Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, the top leaders of the combine, is to convince the voters that the alliance is not merely an opportunistic electoral understanding forged by their mutual antipathy to the BJP, but a durable coalition of parties that agree on a common governance agenda. This is no easy task. Kumar and Prasad have been bitter rivals for over two decades, leading Bihar’s two political poles. Kumar built his support base by highlighting Prasad’s failings in office. Kumar, whose campaign centres on his record as Bihar’s chief minister, will now have to explain how his administrative vision sits with Prasad’s past record in government, which he is unapologetic about. Incidentally, the RJD campaign has focused on a return to the social justice agenda and ignored Kumar’s claims to having ushered in a new Bihar. The task before the two leaders when they conduct joint campaigns will be to convince the electorate that social justice and governance are not binaries, but compatible agendas. That would require the two leaders to be generous in acknowledging each other’s role in Bihar’s transformation in the past 25 years.
The social base that gave a landslide victory to the JD(U)-BJP combine in the 2010 assembly elections has ruptured. The extremely backward castes and Mahadalit communities had largely backed Kumar. Leaders from these sections — Upendra Khushwaha and Jitan Ram Manjhi, for instance — have since left the JD(U) to join the NDA, enabling the alliance to widen its social base. In short, two untested rainbow coalitions are in the fray in Bihar. The outcome is anybody’s guess.