SIGNS OF A REVIVAL
For the first time in decades, the Congress looks upbeat in the state
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
ALL FOR ONE... Bihar Congress in-charge Shakti Sinh Goyil (centre), state president Madan Mohan Jha (second from right) in Patna