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Karpoori Gram/Darbhanga (Bihar): A poster on the wall of a remote village featuring the leaders from the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scheduled to attend an important ceremony earlier this year is one of the last surviving signs of a defunct political alliance.

Karpoori Gram, nearly 80km from capital Patna, is no ordinary village. It is where Karpoori Thakur, the tallest socialist leader of the state and its first non-Congress chief minister, was born. Two of Bihar’s top politicians, chief minister Nitish Kumar of the JD(U) and Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), drew their ideological inspiration from Thakur. It’s another matter that both are now toying with the idea of an alliance with the Congress party, once their common political enemy, as they look to insure their political future in the state.

They have their own reasons. Kumar, after severing links with the BJP, is banking on riding the vote bank based on a combination of Muslims and Mahadalits just as Prasad is looking to revive the winning Muslim-Yadav alliance. The Congress, which is at present a fringe force, has conventionally drawn support from these two vote banks and still enjoys some influence. But, against a resurgent BJP, this may not be enough, especially since the Muslim vote, a sizeable one, may fragment between the Congress, the RJD and the JD(U).

In the case of Kumar, he has to also contend with growing anti-incumbency and his own political vulnerability to pressure groups within the JD(U) to guarantee his slender majority in the Bihar assembly. The Congress, with little to gain, will obviously be a tough negotiator with the two suitors.

In short, the parting of ways has opened up an entirely new political dynamic in Bihar. Not only is it on the cusp in its own development trajectory, having recovered from a hopeless situation to become the fastest growing state in the country, by electing 40 representatives to the Lok Sabha, it will also be crucial in the electoral arithmetic that will determine government formation for the next general election, which, if recent opinion polls are any indication, looks set to be a close contest.

In retrospect, the break-up between the BJP and the JD(U) was waiting to happen. The alliance was one of mutual convenience. However, over time, the growing ambitions of Kumar and the BJP had triggered chaffing, some of which was acrimonious. To a large extent, the political decline of first the Congress and later the RJD only emboldened their individual ambitions.

The two parties had come together when the BJP emerged as the single largest party at the Centre and sought allies to form a coalition government in 1998 and joined hands with the then Samata Party. Since then, the JD(U) has been a reliable ally for the BJP, with its leaders occupying key ministries in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). While Kumar was railway minister in the NDA’s tenure, JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav was the convenor of the alliance until the split in June.

With the importance of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi growing within the BJP, tension simmering in the alliance for nearly a year spilled over in June, making way for the end of the 17-year-old coalition. The announcement of the split by the JD(U) happened within 10 days of Modi being elevated as the head of the main opposition party’s campaign committee, a move Kumar’s party felt was an indication of projecting Modi as the alliance’s prime ministerial candidate.

Some experts were taken by surprise, believing it was a threat that Kumar would never carry out, and also it came out when the state’s populace had begun to dream again.

“Whatever has happened is not good for the state. This government was doing fairly well. In fact, Nitish Kumar and Sushil Modi (of the BJP) together made one of the most formidable teams as far as socioeconomic development is concerned," said Alakh N. Sharma, director for the New Delhi-based Institute for Human Development, who has been tracking the political economy of Bihar for the last three decades.

“Aspirations of the people have risen and, within the whole context of anti-incumbency, people have already begun to complain and more importantly evaluate the government, something which did not happen 8-10 years ago," Sharma said.

On the face of it, the alliance seemed to have worked wonders for the state. Bihar has revised its economic growth rate for 2012-13 to 14.48%, five percentage points higher than what was initially forecast. In the past, too, the state has had the distinction of having recorded the highest average growth rate among all states in the 11th Plan period, which ended in 2011-12. It grew 15.69% in 2006-07, although this came on the back of a 0.17% expansion in 2005-06.

However, the state is still grappling with poverty and had reduced the proportion of people below the poverty line only from 54.4% in 2004-05 to 53.5% in 2009-10, according to the Planning Commission. But the numbers from the Planning Commission’s poverty estimates of 2011-12 reveal that Bihar has a poverty rate of 33.74% against the national average of 21.92%. The road connectivity in the state is 105,621km, according to the state’s road construction department.

With the alliance gone and the state witness once again to political uncertainty, voters are predictably emotive and divided. Worse, they fear that things may well slide back.

“Whenever a family splits, all its members lose from the break-up. It looked like the state was getting back on track after years of lawlessness and crime, but this is potent enough to bring Bihar back to square one," said Mithilesh Kumar, an undergraduate from Badipur village near Bihta town, 35km from Patna.

However, Manzar Alam, a 50-year-old cloth seller from Darbhanga, differs. “Nitish Kumar did the right thing by breaking the alliance," Alam said. “If someone wants to step on my shoulder and walk ahead, why should I go ahead and offer my shoulder to them?"

Regardless about how the people feel about the past, it is the uncertainty about the future that is now gaining traction.

Where earlier the political contest was between the others and the BJP-JD(U) alliance, now the fight has become three cornered and, in some constituencies, even four cornered, with the Congress in the mix.

This promises to resuscitate Lalu Prasad’s otherwise rapidly diminishing political career; not only was he dethroned in Bihar, he also lost out on his ministerial portfolio at the Centre after the 2009 general election when, in a political miscalculation, he exited the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance before the general election.

“We are going to have a three-way contest in Bihar. This is a golden opportunity for Lalu Yadav to come back not because he will become popular over night but simply because the combination is such that in a three way contest, he will gain," said Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst and fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

While the RJD was in power for nearly 15 years, it has failed to make a comeback in the last two assembly elections and performed poorly in the Lok Sabha elections, with only four of its candidates winning—in assembly elections, the RJD had a vote share of 28.34% in 2000, which dipped to 23.45% in October 2005 and to 18.84% in 2010—even while 20 members of Parliament (MPs) of the JD(U), its bitter political rival, were elected.

“Even if you look at the results of 2010 assembly elections, when his performance was absolutely poor and he was close to being decimated, he still managed 18% votes," he said. “I am not saying that the RJD would bounce back in a big way, but even if they get 10-12 Lok Sabha seats next year, it will be a big boost for them ahead of assembly elections in 2015," he added.

In the 243-seat assembly, the JD(U) has 115 members and the BJP 91. Together, they enjoyed one of the largest majorities in the state legislature.

“The split was wrong. I would not be able to say who went wrong where, but certainly this would hit the development trajectory of the state and open it up to a three-way contest," said Nityanand Thakur, head clerk at Karpoori Gram’s Gokhul Karpoori Phuleshwari College and nephew of the deceased socialist leader.

The trust vote that Kumar sought in the assembly after the split has offered pointers of the likely shape of future political alliances and Kumar’s own vulnerability. In the trust vote that got necessitated due to the BJP’s exit, the JD(U) government got 126 votes in its favour, four more than the halfway mark of 122 with the crucial support of four members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) of the Congress party.

However, state leaders of both the JD(U) and the Congress dismiss such a possibility.

“Nitish had the cushion of more than 200 MLAs, he is positioning himself and our party as capable of going it alone in Bihar," said a JD(U) leader from the state, who did not want to be named. “There is certainly a softening of relations between us and the Congress party. However, as of now, the JD-U will go alone at least in the general election."

The Congress on its part is cognizant of the anti-incumbency being faced by Kumar, even as it weighs its own options. “Based on the reports that we are getting from our organization, anti-incumbency has seeped in to a great extent. If no damage control happens, then we would not want to align with a government who itself is mending its ways," a Congress leader from the state said, requesting anonymity.

The bad press following the death of 23 children in Saran district on 16 July date due to suspected poisoning of their midday meals would have only strengthened the fears of the Congress.

The spotlight at present is on the RJD chief, whose political future delicately rests upon the fodder scam case in which a decision is likely to come this month. With the split, Prasad and his rhetoric are heard more strongly than ever since his 15-year rule ended in 2005. And a section of the electorate seems to be willing to forgive him for his misrule earlier.

“The gareeb gorua (poor people) has been isolated in Nitish’s rule. Bribery and bureaucracy are at their heights. Let the BJP and the JD(U) fight among themselves; Lalu will come back to power in the next state elections," Harendra Yadav, a 50-year-old farmer from Badia village in Darbhanga, said.

The phrase gareeb gorua was coined by Prasad during his tenure as chief minister to mobilize the economically weaker sections.

The party, which was already readying for the polls, got a boost after the unexpected split. On 15 May, Prasad addressed a massive rally of party workers in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan. The party seemed to have sensed it early and is readying its organization, including conducting membership drives in villages and forming booth committees.

“THe RJD in Bihar has to fight with two the BJPs now—the first is the official one and the second BJP is the one whose ideal leader is still L.K. Advani," RJD leader Abdul Bari Siddiqui said. Siddiqui’s personal loss from the split: he is no longer the leader of opposition in the state assembly, with the BJP becoming the main opposition in the state.

According to Sanjay Kumar, one of the long-term fallouts of the split for the RJD could a “big split" wherein leaders with socialist tendencies may move to the JD(U) if the party does not perform well in the assembly elections.

While the state unit of the Congress feels that the RJD “is not a dependable ally", the party with the lantern symbol is still keen on maintaining the old friendship. “If we have to stop Narendra Modi, we will have to fight with a secular alliance. This should not be seen as us being weak," Siddiqui said.

With the stakes so high, is it surprising that the main political contenders are working on consolidating their traditional vote banks. Development, which was key to Kumar’s re-election in 2010, is no longer the dominant theme on the agenda. A shift that has come about ironically when the state is poised to strike out on its next phase of development.

“I totally agree that the political parties would be consolidating their own vote banks. Development in Bihar is irreversible. Even after the split, Nitish Kumar knows that he wants to consolidate and survive and development would prove to be a political lubricant for him," said Shaibal Gupta, a senior political analyst from the state, who has closely observed the JD(U). “Kumar is identified with the development agenda, and if there is any political dividends out of it, he is the one who would benefit."

This is the first in a series on Bihar.

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