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SAME OLD STORY

Old foes becoming friends on the eve of elections is usual business in Indian politics. Even so, there is some significance in the coming together of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad after 24 long years. Bihar’s old rivals have not only joined hands, they have also brought the Congress into their new fold. The immediate aim is to put up a united fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party in the by-elections to 10 seats in the Bihar assembly. Divided, these parties can only fall to the BJP’s new offensive. United, they may keep alive their hopes of stopping the saffron juggernaut. The significance of this Bihar model of fighting the BJP lies in its possible impact elsewhere in the country. Mr Prasad wants the model to be tried in Uttar Pradesh as well, with Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayavati closing ranks against the BJP in that state. It is possible that some parties in other states will also come together in order to try and stop the BJP. In many ways, it is a throwback to the times when parties that had nothing in common among themselves joined hands in order to defeat the then all-powerful Congress. With the BJP becoming the ruling party in New Delhi and in many states, anti-BJP alliances are only to be expected before the next round of elections. Bihar is only showing the way.

However, the political context that once forced different parties to join anti-Congress alliances no longer prevails. In Bihar, both Mr Kumar and Mr Prasad were groomed by the politics of ‘reservation’ for the so-called backward people. Their subsequent rise in the state’s politics was directly related to the support of underprivileged people. Much the same phenomenon contributed to the electoral successes of Mr Yadav and Ms Mayavati in UP. But none of these leaders can hope to ride piggyback on ‘reservation politics’ yet again. The rise of Narendra Modi, who belongs to a ‘backward’ community, suggests that the BJP today has the support of many of the socially disadvantaged groups that once formed the core constituencies of parties like Mr Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Mr Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). There is an even more important change from the era of reservation politics — the people everywhere now link electoral politics to economic issues in a way they never did two decades back. Electoral alliances can make sense only if they offer a reasonable development agenda as well.