SIGNS OF A RE­VIVAL

For the first time in decades, the Congress looks up­beat in the state

India Today - - STATES - By Amitabh Sri­vas­tava

Sadaquat Ashram, the Congress head­quar­ters in Patna, is buzzing with ac­tiv­ity. State lead­ers led by Pradesh Congress chief Madan Mo­han Jha are pre­par­ing for Rahul Gandhi’s Jan Akanksha rally (rally for peo­ple’s hopes) on Fe­bru­ary 3, the Congress’s first ‘stand-alone’ pub­lic meet­ing in Patna in years. Ninety-five ‘ob­servers’ have fanned out to Bi­har’s 38 dis­tricts to bring peo­ple to the event.

“Rahul has laid bare the NDA, and Naren­dra Modi has been ex­posed for fail­ing to de­liver on his big prom­ises. Rad­i­cal­ism has trumped the prime min­is­ter’s promised vikas,” says Chan­dan

Ya­dav, AICC sec­re­tary in-charge of Ch­hat­tis­garh, who is help­ing out with the prepa­ra­tions in Patna.

The mood in the Bi­har Congress has been up­beat since De­cem­ber when the party snatched three ‘heart­land’ states from the BJP. “And now, we also have Priyanka Gandhi. Her for­mal en­try into pol­i­tics will have a spillover ef­fect in Bi­har,” says a se­nior Congress leader. “This is like a booster dose for the party after the assem­bly elec­tion vic­to­ries.”

The party sud­denly has more tak­ers in the state too. For­mer JD(U) bahubali (strong­man) Anant Singh is among the sev­eral ticket as­pi­rants for the com­ing Lok Sabha poll. “Ir­re­spec­tive of whether they (Congress) give me a ticket or not, I will back the Congress. And I will win,” he says. An­other equally no­to­ri­ous bahubali, Ra­jesh Ran­jan aka Pappu Ya­dav, also wants the Congress to back his can­di­da­ture from Mad­hep­ura. His wife Ran­jeeta Ran­jan is a sit­ting Congress MP from Su­paul. A se­nior Congress leader points to the rush for tick­ets as proof of the trac­tion the party now has in Bi­har. And it’s not just the strong­men, es­tranged BJP lead­ers such as Sha­trughan Sinha too are said to be eye­ing Congress tick­ets here.

But the prob­lem for the Congress is that the party is quite low in the ‘po­lit­i­cal peck­ing order’. The party needs Lalu Prasad Ya­dav’s RJD to make any im­pact. Con­sider this: for suc­ces­sive elec­tions, in­clud­ing Lok Sabha 2014, when the BJP-led NDA won 31 of the 40 seats in the state, the RJD’s vote share has hov­ered around 18 per cent. To­gether, the RJD and Congress have a size­able 29 per cent vote share, but it is still be­low the com­bined 2014 votes polled by Ni­tish Ku­mar’s JD(U), Ram Vi­las Paswan’s LJP and the BJP.

Congress lead­ers, how­ever, say this cal­cu­la­tion has too many im­pon­der­ables. “The BJP is un­likely to catch a sec­ond ‘Modi wave’, in Bi­har or any­where else,” says a state leader.

So en­thused are par­ty­men that they are work­ing over­time to make the Rahul rally a talk­ing point in the state. If suc­cess­ful, they be­lieve the Congress can win back the up­per-caste vote bank it has lost to the BJP. Un­til 1990, the Congress also had the largest share of Dalit and Mus­lim votes. Al­though the Congress has shared an am­i­ca­ble al­liance with the RJD, the party is now ev­i­dently look­ing to re­claim lost po­lit­i­cal ground. Jha’s ap­point­ment last Septem­ber, the first Brah­min to head the Bi­har unit since Ja­gan­nath Mishra in 1991, is widely seen as the start of the Congress’s big push.

Though the up­per castes make up only 11-12 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion in Bi­har, they can swing elec­tions, given the divi­sion of other caste votes among the RJD, JD(U), LJP, Upen­dra Kush­waha’s RLSP and other smaller par­ties. Congress lead­ers con­tend this is what prompted the BJP’s last-minute 10 per cent quota sop for the eco­nom­i­cally weak among the up­per castes.

The first signs of the up­per castes’ dis­en­chant­ment with the BJP were vis­i­ble in the 2015 assem­bly poll, when the Congress won 27 seats. As many as 12 of the 16 up­per-caste can­di­dates fielded by the party won.

This time, the Congress is look­ing for a big­ger come­back in the com­pany of old al­lies and some new ones like the RLSP, Ji­tan Ram Man­jhi’s HAM and Mukesh Sahni’s VIP party. Rahul’s Jan Akanksha rally will of­fer some clues to the puz­zle of the party’s fu­ture in the state.

WIN­NING BACK THE UP­PER-CASTE VOTE WILL BE KEY TO THE CONGRESS’S SUC­CESS IN BI­HAR

SONU KIS­HAN

ALL FOR ONE... Bi­har Congress in-charge Shakti Sinh Goyil (cen­tre), state pres­i­dent Madan Mo­han Jha (sec­ond from right) in Patna

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