Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav and Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav are not the only ones having second thoughts about the merger of Janata Parivar factions. As it happens, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is also keeping his options open.

The Janata Dal (United) leader has begun drafting an alternative alliance strategy for the Bihar assembly elections later this year that would have him ally with the Congress and the Left parties, and leave out the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Janata Dal (United) insiders maintain that Nitish Kumar came up with this idea and decided to start negotiations with the Congress because of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s insistence on not projecting him as the chief ministerial candidate. The Bihar chief minister, they say, will initiate talks with the Left, including the Communist Party of India, after a deal has been struck with the Congress.

The idea of Nitish Kumar’s alternative alliance may suit the Congress too.

According to officials in the Congress, party vice-president Rahul Gandhi is not in favour of becoming part of any coalition that has RJD as a prominent member. “Not only would the alliance suffer from an image problem in case the RJD is prominently placed in it, there would also be a very small number of seats that could be left for the Congress,” said a senior Congress leader. “These possibilities had in fact forced the party to chart out a way independent of the regional players in Bihar. That problem won’t arise if we go to polls along with Nitish Kumar and Left parties.”

These developments may well explain why Nitish Kumar missed a meeting of the leaders of Janata Parivar factions in Delhi on Friday even though he was in the national capital. (His aides attributed the absence to a “minor eye surgery”.)

Caste calculus

Apart from Lalu Prasad Yadav’s adamance, the other reason for Nitish Kumar’s extraordinary move to stitch up a new alliance could be the realities of Bihar politics: it is generally agreed that a majority of upper castes cast ballot to keep RJD out of power and a majority of Muslims do it to defeat the BJP. Neither of them has any major beef with Nitish Kumar.

As chief minister, Nitish Kumar has received wide acceptability among the Most Backward Classes and Mahadalits (the poorest among Dalits), the two social categories he has particularly courted over the last decade. Even among minorities and upper castes, he arguably has more acceptability than any one other leader of the state.

From the viewpoint of JD(U), its prospects of luring a substantial chunk of upper castes – most of whom reportedly voted for the BJP in last year’s Lok Sabha elections – could get hurt if it fights the election in alliance with the RJD. On the other hand, if it stays away from Lalu Yadav’s party, its chances of hauling in these votes could increase, particularly because the BJP relies largely on Other Backward Class faces in the state and the sheen of the Modi government at the Centre is fading.

JD(U) insiders feel that Muslims, who cast their lot with the RJD-Congress alliance in the Lok Sabha elections, may root for Nitish Kumar as well if the Congress leaves Lalu Prasad and switches sides. In a three-corner contest, they say, the JD(U)-Congress-Left alliance may be better poised to defeat the BJP than the RJD, whose Yadav vote base is slowly being dented by the saffron party.

Tectonic shifts

Leaders in the JD(U) and Congress further claim that the alternative alliance could pave way for a new social alignment by seriously affecting both the RJD and the BJP – the former may lose its Muslim vote and the latter a significant chunk of its upper caste base.

Muslims account for nearly 16% of Bihar’s population and are said to have contributed a major portion of the 20.8% vote share the RJD garnered in the last Lok Sabha elections in the state. Bihar’s four upper castes – Brahmins, Thakurs, Bhumihars and Kayasthas – account for around 15% of the population and formed a significant part of the 29% vote share the BJP received.

In the Lok Sabha elections, the JD(U) received 15.8% of all votes in the state and the Congress around 9%. It would be a tectonic shift in case they together succeed to produce a different result in the Assembly elections in September-October this year.