With just a couple of weeks left for the first phase of the Bihar assembly elections, there is a lingering sense of uncertainty about the electoral outcome. Analysing election trends leading up to Bihar, poll outcomes in the Lok Sabha and the states have varied greatly. The assembly election results preceding the 2019 general election and the ones following it — Haryana, for instance — clearly demonstrate that anti-incumbency at the state level can easily override Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.
Additionally in Bihar, ‘Brand Nitish Kumar’ has suffered a dent leading up to the polls. However, is the Mahagathbandhan led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) well-placed to exploit the ensuing situation?
The RJD’s rationale to allocate 70 seats to a much-weakened Congress (along with 29 seats to the Left parties) is under the scanner for its seeming disproportionality. For the RJD, its core vote bank being the Yadav-Muslim combine, having Congress in the alliance simply ensures that this vote is not split. The million dollar question remains whether granting 70 seats to the Congress could turn out to be costly for the Grand Alliance.
Listen | Remembering the lessons left behind by former Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur
Congress in Bihar since the ’90s
After the Mandal and Kamandal phase of the early 1990s, the Congress’ traditional vote bank in Bihar has seen steady erosion. Tamil Nadu aside, Bihar is the only major state that the Congress has been written off for nearly three decades now, content being tail-enders to more established parties such as the RJD.
Going back to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government era, one would be astonished to learn that there was zero representation from Bihar in UPA 2, with not even a minister of state from Bihar figuring in the council of ministers. In fact, the last Congress leader of any stature following the end of Jagannath Mishra’s tenure as Chief Minister in 1990 was Tariq Anwar. Anwar was cut to size by the Congress ‘darbaris’ in the late-nineties due to his proximity with the late Sitaram Kesari. Although Anwar is back in the party after a long interlude, he is now a spent force, with Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) looking to make inroads in Katihar and the rest of Seemanchal.
Today, the Congress in Bihar is a lifeless entity with a moribund organisation. The party did not even have a state president for a while after Ashok Choudhary deserted the party for the Janata Dal (United).
The membership campaign meant to take the party to the 25 percent youth demographic was delayed by almost two years before it finally kick-started in July. None of the Congress leaders were visible on the ground to try and ameliorate the pain of the victims during the floods and the migrant exodus. This being the harsh reality, the audacity of the Congress to wrest 70 seats in the ‘Mahagathbandhan’ is purely on account of its delusions of grandeur.
Playing the Upper Caste Card
By appointing a Brahmin face in Madan Mohan Jha as party president after more than two-and-a-half decades, the Congress seems to be hedging on Brahmin and upper caste votes coming to its kitty. This would have made some sense if Jha had any influence within his community. The Congress imagines its role is to attract upper caste votes for the alliance, but it is going to be a tall order with that section firmly backing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
A casual look at the Congress list for the first phase would reveal that out of the 21 candidates, 15 belong to the upper castes, apart from four Schedule Castes and two Other Backward Caste candidates, with no Muslim candidate in the list. The Congress is fancying its chances in Kahalgaon, Buxar, Bikram (all sitting seats), Barbhiga and Hisua among these.
The Seat-Sharing Circus
While Tejashwi Yadav was willing to part with only 60 seats, with the RJD itself wanting to contest in a minimum of 150 seats, Congress general secretary in-charge Shaktisinh Gohil put his foot down to snatch 70 for Congress. On the RJD’s part, it managed to get the Congress into accepting seats of the RJD’s choice — beyond the sitting seats — with some of the assigned seats not seeing a Congress MLA in three decades. With the Congress being pitted in a direct contest with the BJP in many of these seats, it will be a huge task for the Congress to retain its 27 seats won in 2015, let alone add to it.
With the RJD expected to perform better than poll predictions, it will be interesting to see how the Congress backs it up, or whether the grand old party ends up killing the chances of the alliance.Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator. Views are personal.