NEW DELHI, India — Indian politics are in for a major shake-up after a powerful regional party pulled out of the country's main opposition alliance, less than a year before the next general election.
The Janata Dal-United (JDU) party, based in the northeast state of Bihar, split from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Sunday after 17 years together in the National Democratic Alliance. The break-up was precipitated by the BJP's choice of right-wing firebrand Narendra Modi to lead the Hindu nationalist party's 2014 campaign, a move that most analysts here believe means he'll also be named its candidate for prime minister.
"Our foundational principles have been irrevocably damaged," JDU senior leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar told reporters over the weekend. "I'm not bothered about the consequences even if they harm us. It may be anything but the coalition has ended.
"It's a question of morality, not about holding on to power."
The divorce confirms that the BJP's elevation of the controversial Modi will have a deep, and potentially unforeseen, impact on the formations that have dominated Indian politics for at least the past 20 years.
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The long-serving chief minister of Gujurat, Modi is still remembered for the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in the state's largest city, Ahmedabad, in which some 2,000 people were killed—though none of his critics have been able to prove charges that he purposefully slowed the police response to the carnage. And despite his success in making Gujarat India's most business-friendly state, the various anti-Muslim remarks he made in the immediate aftermath of the riots have won him a reputation as a hardline Hindu ideologue.
On the face of it, Kumar broke with the BJP for ideological and practical reasons—though ambition and personal enmity for Modi may also have played a role.
Kumar's center-left JDU won power in economically depressed Bihar through what experts term "a coalition of the high and low," comprising the state's high-caste Brahmins and low-caste Dalits. Muslim voters are key, however, if the JDU hopes to make further strides in Bihar. The group's alliance with the BJP always hinged on the Hindu party downplaying its ideology of Hindutva, or Hinduness—which critics say demands that Muslims assimilate or accept second-class status.
Modi's rise put paid to that uneasy relationship.
But the end of the BJP-JDU alliance, as well as rumblings from other regional leaders such as Odisha's Naveen Patnaik and West Bengal's Mamata Banerjee, could signal broader changes than a rejigging of coalition partners for the dominant Congress and BJP.
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"All the present assumptions will be irrelevant," said M.J. Akbar, longtime newspaper editor and political analyst.
"New alliances at the vote level, between identity groups, are being formed as we speak."
"Whatever happens in Bihar, the effect is big on the national level," agrees Shaibal Gupta, a social scientist with the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute. Like Akbar, he believes that the split presages a "reconfiguration of forces" among social groups—not just political parties.
Though India's national politics are frequently simplified to a contest between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's secular Congress and the Hindu BJP, those divisions have not proved the deciding factor in the past several elections. Rather, complex coalitions forged through a mix of identity politics and patronage, such as Kumar's high-low alliance, have been the key to electoral victory—steadily eroding the influence of the two most powerful national parties and increasing the power of regional kingmakers.
Now, both Gupta and Akbar suggest, those underlying formations, based on regional or religious or caste-based ideas of identity, are likely to be thrown into flux. Essentially, that means virtually anything could happen. But whatever happens will seriously shake things up.
"We should see very quickly which way the new winds begin to blow," said Akbar. "But they will be new winds."