Bihar: The Lucky Ally

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Unexpected gains in Bihar has the Congress beaming. Will the euphoria last?

On 8 November, a Congress general secretary rang a landline phone at Nitish Kumar’s residence in Patna to congratulate him on his grand victory. He asked the person on the other side to note down his details and inform Nitish of his call. To his surprise, the person said it was Nitish himself speaking. “You have won in Bihar but you saved us from embarrassment at the national level,” the Congress leader told Bihar’s re-elected Chief Minister.

That the Grand Old Party has been in desperate need of face-savers in recent times is something even partymen do not deny. And the Bihar verdict has been the first cause of cheer at the Congress headquarters on 24 Akbar Road in Delhi in two years. Little wonder that drumbeats of victory could be heard till late evening. The 27 seats it won out of Bihar’s 243 may sound like an insignificant tally. But given how badly its support base has been eroded over the decades in the state, no Congress leader expected more than single digits. The party rode pillion with Lalu Prasad’s RJD and Nitish Kumar’s JD-U, yielding to them just about every decision of the grand alliance it was part of. It did not get to pick constituencies to contest, and in some cases, not even candidates. Given its weak footing, its performance has been a shot in the arm for partymen. “If not anything, this win has infused a new level of confidence among Congress workers,” says CP Joshi, the party general secretary in charge of Bihar.

“It’s a win-win situation for Congress in Bihar,” says Professor Sanjay Kumar, director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, “It has won sizeable seats and is part of the ruling coalition.” Yet, the credit must go to the alliance, surely. “Our leader Rahul Gandhi took the initiative to bring together like-minded parties,” says Joshi, “and in the end, it benefitted all.”

Apart from the alliance, there were other factors that secured the victory. Many upper castes, especially Brahmins, voted Congress and that too played a crucial role. “Congress always had a vote bank of upper castes. It is just that they came out in the open this time, once they saw the winning probability of Congress candidates,” says Shaibal Gupta, a social scientist and founder member of Asian Development Research Institute in Patna. Sanjay Kumar adds, “If you see the Congress vote share in Bihar even during its worst period, it stood at around 8 per cent. This was a rainbow vote share from all castes and communities.”

Giving tickets to upper caste candidates also helped the Congress split the core constituency of the BJP. That the RJD and JD-U retained their own votes made the alliance a winning combination. According to Gupta, the upper caste votes that went to the Congress were not for Nitish Kumar. “It was an anti-Modi or anti-incumbent vote which cannot go to either RJD or JD-U. An upper caste candidate on a RJD or JD-U ticket is not considered authentic by these caste groups. But if the candidate in on a Congress ticket, they find it easier to vote for the person,” says Gupta. On that logic, does the Congress see itself as an alternative to the BJP in times to come? “It is too premature to say that,” says Sanjay Kumar. “It all depends on the caste formations in future polls and also the performance of the government.” Siddharth Singh, a Congress candidate from Bikram won the seat by more than 43,000 votes in a constituency where upper-caste Bhumihars constitute the majority of voters. A Bhumihar himself, he was pitted against another member of this caste group (and three-time MLA of the BJP). “I got more than 50 per cent votes of the Bhumihars in my constituency,” claims Singh. Similarly, Munna Tiwari of Congress won in Buxar, a Brahmin and Yadav dominated seat. “Brahmins have always been given their due by Congress,” says Munna Tiwari. “Remember, when Indira Gandhi, a Kashmiri Pandit was the Prime Minister, there were 14 Brahmin chief ministers across the country.” In the same breath, Tiwari cites the names of Brahmin chief ministers of Bihar: Jagannath Mishra, Bindeshwari Dubey, Bhagwat Jha Azad. Tiwari had mentioned this in closed community meetings during his election campaign, urging listeners to vote for Brahmin pride.

Till the late 80s, the Congress had the support of assorted caste groups in Bihar. The votes of upper castes, Dalits and Muslims saw the party win several elections in the state. However, this support base was eroded in the early 1990s by the emergence of the so-called Mandir and Mandal forces led by the BJP and then Janata Dal (to which RJD and JD-U trace their lineage). So badly was the Congress hit that it is still struggling in Bihar. The 1990 formation of a Janata Dal government in Patna sounded the Congress’ decline. That was the time when local satraps like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan emerged as leaders of their respective caste groups. “Historically, Muslims have always voted with Hindu upper castes,” says Shaibal Gupta. “In the case of Bihar, two events proved to be detrimental to Congress that led to its losing the Muslim vote.” Riots had broken out in Bhagalpur when the Congress was in power at both the Centre and the state, and this prompted a sizeable portion of Muslim votes to shift to leaders like Lalu Prasad. “Muslims had an impression that it’s OBCs and EBCs who fight with them and Hindu upper castes protect them,” says Shakeel Ahmed, Congress general secretary and a senior leader from Bihar. “But the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 was when Muslims got really scared.” That was when they abandoned the old pattern of voting alongside upper castes. In Bihar, Congress felt the double impact of Bhagalpur and Babri. This was true even in the case of Uttar Pradesh, another state where the Congress lost Muslim support to local leaders, resulting in the formation of a Muslim-Yadav (MY) vote bank for Mulayam Singh Yadav.

After Muslims and Dalits deserting the Congress in Bihar, upper castes were all that the party could plausibly rely on, but they too began to move away: to the BJP. The big shift happened in the 1995 Assembly polls; wherever the Congress put upper-caste candidates, the BJP challenged them with its own upper-caste nominees. The vote was thus split and this helped Lalu Prasad form a government in the state. “That was the time when upper-caste voters felt that Congress cannot defeat Lalu and they began leaning towards the BJP to consolidate their votes,” says an upper-caste Congress leader from Bihar. The trend was clear, and the party got wiped out in the state.

An entire generation has come of voting age in a Congress-less Bihar. The once-mighty party fought the Assembly elections of 2010 on its own, securing just around 8 per cent of the entire vote and winning only four seats. This time, though the number of its seats saw a jump to 27, its vote share actually declined to 6 per cent. The decline, though, is explained by the fact that the party contested only 41 seats. “The BJP talks about a Congress-free India. But it is this vote share which has the power to turn the party’s fortunes around,” says Nikhil Kumar, a former MP and senior Congress leader. “The truth is Congress is the only party with pan-India presence and that keeps it alive, come what may. Whenever people need to seek a national alternative to the BJP, it is always the Congress,” he adds.

The Congress has to sustain this support while also attracting new voters. “If they are able to increase their vote share among Brahmins, the next caste group which can come to the fold would be Dalits,” says Abhay Kumar, a social scientist based in Patna. “Dalits find it easier to vote alongside Brahmins in Bihar than landlord upper castes like Bhumihars and Rajputs. But that would require lot of ground work.” Of all its MLAs in Bihar, 12 are upper caste and an equal number Muslim. The Congress had an opportunity to include different caste groups in the four ministerial berths it got as its alliance share, so it nominated a Dalit, a Muslim, a Rajput and a Brahmin. There is no Bhumihar, and this could put off voters of this caste group. However, the party can harp on championing the cause of Brahmins. However, says Joshi, “Just being part of the new government will not increase the party’s vote share. We are aiming to do good work, and the newly elected members will be available for party workers across the state. Their performance as Congress representatives is crucial for better outcomes in the future. The challenge for us is greater than for other coalition partners.” While Nitish Kumar is the face of the government and Lalu a key part of the state’s power structure, Congress ministers would need to earn the party recognition despite being under the shadow of those two leaders—a tough task. If the party grows complacent as the coalition’s third member, any chance of staging a revival would vanish.

On 14 November Rahul Gandhi, while speaking at an occasion to mark Nehru’s 175th birth anniversary, had this to say: “Our experiment of aligning with like- minded parties has worked well in Bihar and we will continue this in other states.” If he means that such alliances will be forged for next year’s state assembly polls, the Bihar template is unlikely to yield results. The Congress is currently in power in two of these states—Assam and Kerala. In Assam, it is trying to forge an alliance with the main opposition AIUDF to consolidate Muslim votes. But AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal has denied any such understanding. “Why would I share their burden of 15 years of anti-incumbency?” he asked. “I know they need us, but do we need them?” The Congress is also facing anti-incumbency in Kerala, where the coalition government it leads is unpopular. Nor do the party’s prospects look good in West Bengal, the third state that will go to polls next year. The failure of an earlier alliance with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress left a bitter taste among state Congress leaders and striking a new deal will not prove easy. In Tamil Nadu, the fourth, the Congress remains a bit player.

A stiffer challenge awaits the party for the UP Assembly polls in 2017. Congress leaders talk of a possible alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). Some even talk of a grand alliance like Bihar’s. But state leaders are dismissive. “The current Samajwadi Party government has lost credibility and no one would like to face the elections with them,” says a senior UP Congress leader. “BSP thinks it can win on its own, and in that case, why would it partner us? We already had an alliance with RLD.”

While the Bihar results have boosted the morale of Congress leaders and workers, to assume that it spells a broader revival would be premature. If the idea is to form anti-Modi alliances, then the modalities of these could mean a dilution of the party’s power to such an extent that it would hurt its aspirations to national leadership. It could work if it evolves a structure that draws various parties together under the Congress umbrella, like with the UPA. However, this is likely only if there is evidence of the Grand Old Party regaining its appeal across the country. Bihar offers no such indication.

So long as Congress winnability is in doubt, regional parties that have worked hard to create vote banks will assert themselves. Rahul Gandhi’s fight for recovery of power at the Centre, thus, has a long way to go. His post-Bihar sense of triumph could disappear with another brush with ground conditions. It is not coalition arithmetic but a convincing agenda that his party needs.