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Nitish lock on Lalu

Nitish Kumar was swept into power in Patna in a landslide victory on Tuesday. The end of the 15-year Lalu-Rabri raj was dramatic.

Its consequences will be far-reaching. Bihar was the only large Hindi-belt state under a United Progressive Alliance government.

Coming on the eve of the winter session, this will put wind back in the sail of a resurgent National Democratic Alliance. The Congress did have good news from Maharashtra, where new entrant Narayan Rane re-took the Malwan Assembly seat with a 60,000-vote margin.

But it was Bihar, not Mumbai, that was the story of the day. In the north along the Nepal border as much as in the old strongholds of the pastoral Yadav communities of Madhepura and Saharsa, the message was the same. Voters were in a mood for change. Even former chief minister Rabri Devi had trouble holding on to Raghopur.

The NDA got a ringing endorsement with 143 seats, with Nitish’s party Janata Dal (United) being the biggest gainer with 88. The BJP won the rest.

The new-found confidence was clear in Dal (U) leader Prabhunath Singh’s claim that the link with the BJP was not a sagai but a dosti. Friendship, unlike a wedding engagement, requires the other partner to keep to the terms. Clearly, a re-appraisal of Hindutva was not on offer from the erstwhile socialists.

The decline of the BJP, nationally, has led to a loosening of links of the minorities to forces that strongly opposed saffron politics. Significantly, Lalu Prasad did not play up Godhra as in February nor did figures like Narendra Modi hit the campaign trail. Yadav power was always based on a strong surge of Muslim support. This base held despite strains, but could not spell victory.

The Opposition alliance gets a shot in the arm, the first since May 2004. More seriously, this is the first popular indicator that the showdown with the Sangh top brass has not dented the BJP’s fortunes.

If anything, the verdict will be seen as victory for a minimal emphasis on saffron ideology and more on governance. Lal Krishna Advani had won critical support on the Jinnah controversy from Nitish. Today, the Bihar result will be taken as evidence that the new line works better.

The scale of the defeat will soon open a debate on how the game was lost for the ruling alliance and when. Ram Vilas Paswan was unrepentant. He insisted that had his allies in the UPA taken up his pledge of a minority chief minister, they could have won.

Although he suffered a decline in seat share and came a distant third, Paswan proved that bereft of him the alliance stands to lose. The 2004 Lok Sabha poll victory of the alliance, when it led in over 150 Assembly segments, looks like a blip caused by a pooling of votes than a lasting realignment of forces.

Evidently, there is a social churning with the first phase of Mandal having run its course. The bloc of Dalits, OBCs and minorities splintered.

But it did so in a way that made a new coalition of extremes possible. The extremely backward classes or EBCs ' one in three voters in Bihar ' were earlier with Lalu Prasad. Groups like Kewats, Dhobis and Nishads opted this time for Nitish Kumar, displacing the Yadavs from the seat of power.

Lalu Prasad did little wrong in tactical terms. He sidelined his brothers-in-law, mobilised the Yadav voters and wooed the minorities.

He also breathed fire at the Election Commission by alleging that his core voters, the poor, were being targeted. Yet, the fact is his message did not evoke the response it once did.

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