The data and the demographic specifics behind Nitish Kumar’s extraordinary victory in the Bihar assembly elections will absorb political enthusiasts in the weeks ahead. One intriguing outcome of Sunday’s result has been the performance of the Congress which managed to win 27 of the 41 seats it contested as the part of the Grand Alliance with Kumar’s JD(U) and Lalu Prasad’s (RJD). The party is understandably upbeat; its cadre will take heart from the strong remarks by Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi following the outcome — and represent them as a foretaste of more political combativeness to follow.
What will particularly encourage the party leadership is that the Congress was fairly central, if not indispensable, to the political formation that took the battle to the BJP, instead of the grand old party being in the margins watching other forces contrive opposition momentum. This flowed from an astute reading that the party really had no choice in Bihar except to hitch its fortunes to Messrs Kumar and Prasad. A modest outcome was clearly better than none when the party was struggling to stay in the headlines. Looking forward, the party would be better off exploring alliances in the states that have elections to follow. This is easier said than done in a party where factional interests can frustrate central calculations. Already state Congress leaders have targeted BSP leader Mayawati and SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav assuming they are already on a roll.
The Congress should know that there is no momentum for the party just yet. As important elections in West Bengal, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh are due over the next two years, the party will need to be flexible about forging alliances where its own prospects are uncertain. Getting the balance between its own ambition and holding its own flock together while yielding to other political forces where warranted will need a lot of careful handling. Apart from revitalising his party, Rahul Gandhi’s evolution as a politician will depend a good deal on how he manages political relationships while keeping party-political interests in mind.