Bihar will vote starting next month in what is perhaps the most watched election after Narendra Modi led the BJP to its most stunning performance in national polls last year. Bihar, originally, was a contest between a resurgent BJP, which hopes to continue its dream run in a state it has never ruled on its own, and a "secular" Grand Alliance that brought bitter rivals, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, together with the Congress.
Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Nitish and Lalu knew that when they decided to bury their hatchet in their desire to continue being politically relevant in their bastion. Ironically, the unlikely alliance was stitched by Samajwadi Party boss Mulayam Singh Yadav, who, in a manner consistent with his shock-and-awe politics, deserted his Janata comrades.
The reason Mulayam cited for ditching the Grand Alliance was as shoddy as the ground his party stands on in Bihar. For a party whose candidates lost their deposits at every seat they contested in 2010 Bihar election, asking for a bigger share in the high-stakes pie was audacious, if not suspect.
Mulayam now is with another disgruntled Grand Alliance constituent, Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party, another marginal player in Bihar. The two, along with an insignificant partner, claim they are now a Third Front, opposed to the BJP but more than willing to queer the Bihar pitch.
It gets worse. Six Left parties, including bitter ideological adversaries - the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) - form a Left Front to take on the BJP, the Grand Alliance and the Third Front. While the Left's commitment to secularism is least suspect in the murky Indian polity, more on that later.
To a pitch already queered with self-proclaimed secularists came Asaduddin Owaisi, far from being one. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief, who, thanks to an accelerated Project Hindutva in post-Modi India, is poaching on the fear and insecurities of India's Muslims, claiming to be their natural political ally.
Buoyed by an impressive debut in Maharashtra where he now has two MLAs, Owaisi has decided to field candidates in the Muslim-majority Seemanchal region of Bihar. While 24 seats may not appear to be decisive enough in the 243-member Bihar Assembly, it will divide Muslim votes in an election they have a lot of stake in.
Owaisi apologists, and even his detractors, argue that he, like every other citizen, is free to contest wherever he wants to. They ask why the Muslims, who do not have a problem with a Nitish, who was a BJP ally for 17 long years, or a Mulayam, ever the sly opportunist who is in a dubious relationship with secular politics, are kosher, why is Owaisi suddenly the bad Muslim in Bihar?
In the answer to that question lies a provocative, even anti-democratic, proposal that I have no hesitation in making here: electoral politics be damned (for now).
Desperate times call for desperate measures. (Feel free to stop reading if you think the times are not desperate yet, or if you are one of those who love it this way. If you don't and are willing to engage with me more, here is what I mean.)
So what do we have around? The spectre of unbridled, uninhibited Project Hindutva that seeks to change every structure of democracy we have inherited. The government is accountable to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and not the people who elected it. The head of that organisation is on national TV, its members being imposed upon political and liberal establishments to pursue a fascist design.
Institutions are being subverted and invaded, people running them hounded off. Union ministers are asking Muslims to be nationalists "like Kalam", their henchmen asking a mainstream Bollywood composer to reconvert to Hinduism. Rationalists and liberals, who question blind faith, are being killed with impunity.
Communal riots and hatred are so mainstream they have become banal headlines for media organisations, lacking the anger they should otherwise provoke. Lawyers and activists face a witch-hunt and are being threatened with arrest for pursuing cases against those in power. While all this goes on with an unprecedented vengeance, the prime minister, whose elevation to the office triggered that paranoia, is above scrutiny or even accountability.
As the idea of India faces an assault of such horrendous and potentially irreversible proportions, isn't it time to revisit the very idea of electoral politics that created the possibility for such anti-politics to emerge in the first place? Isn't multipolar electoral contest, the hallmark of a working democracy, irrelevant when the discourse now is bipolar?
In capital New Delhi, the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Delhi University had their students' union elections recently. In JNU, the bastion of radical politics, the right-wing ABVP made a comeback after 14 years, thanks to the division of liberal votes between the SFI-AISF combine, the AISA, the NSUI, and a host of other groups.
In DU, the ABVP swept the polls for a straight second year, riding comfortably on a verdict split between the NSUI, the AISA and the Aam Aadmi Party's student wing, CYSS, which made its debut this year. Remove even one group from the equation and the results would have been entirely different. (What is interesting is the radical Left's love for electoral politics despite their ideology that frowns over it.)
It is time the liberal-secular political parties, who have a stake in the idea of India currently facing its biggest ever threat, to reject short-term electoral gains and fight what is essentially a war for survival. The bugles have been sounded. The foes are at the door, determined and divisive. The question is: Are they ready?