The chief minister of Bihar, India's second most populous state, is thought to be reconsidering his partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party. If he goes ahead, Nitish Kumar, a devotee of the socialist intellectual Rammanohar Lohia, could influence the 2014 general elections in favour of Sonia Gandhi.
This has excited our newspapers.
However I find it difficult to see why Nitish's Janata Dal (United) would consider breaking with the BJP.
His allying of Lohiaite socialists with Hindutva has produced the best caste coalition of any state in India. It is a formidable combination that is likely to stay in power a long time if it stays together.
The JDU-BJP team commands 40 percent of the vote in Bihar. This is remarkable for such a fragmented state, and invincible in our first-past-the-post electoral system. In India's largest state Uttar Pradesh by comparison, Mulayam Singh won a majority with only 29 percent of the vote. His rival Mayawati, just 3 percent behind, was trounced 224 to 80.
In Bihar, Nitish has a 15 per cent vote-share lead over his primary rivals Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan's alliance. This sort of dominance is not thrown away in politics. This is why it is difficult to see why Nitish would leave the BJP and side with the Congress after next year's general election.
Why is meant by best caste coalition? Let's have a look. The key aspect of the JDU-BJP alliance is its domination across sections of society. We can observe this through the names of Bihar's legislators, and through the winners of constituencies reserved for the Scheduled Castes (SCs).
In Bihar, the Scheduled Castes are totally with JDU-BJP. Of the 38 seats reserved for SC candidates, 37 are with the JDU-BJP, split 19 to 18 between them. The attraction of Dalits to the BJP where it is in power is not unusual: in Gujarat also, Narendra Modi has trounced Congress 8-3 in SC constituencies.
Of the 18 peasant Yadavs in the Assembly, 14 are with the JDU-BJP (10 with JDU)
Upper castes are of course solidly behind BJP as always. All 8 Brahmin MLAs and the only Baniya name I could spot on the list are with the alliance, with 6 in the BJP.
Meanwhile very large numbers of Muslims are voting for JDU. Nitish has the most Muslim MLAs of any party. Of the 19 Muslims in the Assembly, 8 are with the alliance (of whom one is BJP). This sort of sweeping lower caste + middle caste + upper caste + Muslim coalition that Nitish has put together is reminiscent of Congress in the time of Nehru and Indira. It shows his alliance in Bihar is working. Both parties have different strengths.
The JDU brings most of the middle castes and many Muslims, the BJP brings all the upper castes and the two split the lower castes. Nitish cannot replace the BJP easily because it has assets to offer him that no other other party has.
The Janata Dal-BJP alliance has 115 and 91 seats respectively, in an assembly of 243. Their individual voteshare is respectively 22.5 percent and 16.5 percent. This is locked in, and in the 2009 general elections, the JDU got 24 per cent.
By himself, it is obvious here, Nitish is unlikely to win Bihar again without the BJP.
The other thing is that he has an excellent partner in the Bihar BJP, Sushil Modi. A pragmatist who is not from the lunatic end of the party (his wife Jessie George is Catholic), Modi is the ideal man to temper the BJP and prepare it for the alliance. While all the attention is on the other Modi in Gujarat, he is one man to watch out for.
And so the Nitish-Modi combination is likely to continue to 2014, with Nitish continuing to temper the BJP's extremism to pacify his constituency.