On November 25, a day after the Bihar election results were announced, many newspapers used AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s photograph alongside Congress’s score in Bihar assembly election. The JD(U)-BJP alliance’s score had Nitish Kumar’s photograph and the RJD-LJP combine’s had Lalu Prasad’s photo.
It was after some discussions in respective newsrooms that the papers decided to use Gandhi’s photograph, for there was not a single, recognisable Congress leader in the state.
The way things are, the UP assembly elections in 2012 will throw up the same situation for the Congress – Mayawati versus Mulayam Singh versus Rahul Gandhi!
The ignominy of the party’s pathetic performance in Bihar goes beyond the fact that it won merely four of the total 243 seats (see Dismal performance). But the aftertaste of the defeat is as bitter as the defeat itself.
At the AICC plenary in Delhi last week, delegates from Bihar created ruckus and accused party general secretary in-charge Mukul Wasnik of “selling party tickets.” One wonders who may have paid for a Congress ticket in Bihar! At the plenary, both Sonia and Rahul acknowledged a serious problem that Congress faces – its virtual absence in Bihar and UP despite being the ruling party at the Centre; and its negligible presence in Tamil Nadu and Bengal. These four states elect 201 members to the Lok Sabha, and the Congress’s dream of coming to power in Delhi on its will remain just that unless it recovers its heft in these states.
“The recent election in Bihar has demonstrated that there is no alternative to earnestly beginning the process of reviving the party organisation… the road ahead will be long and arduous,” said Sonia Gandhi.
Bihar represents the problem in its extreme. Getting a grip of it will help the party in other states, too.
All is not lost
The political trend in Bihar clearly favours a rainbow coalition of diverse castes and communities, the traditional bedrock of Congress politics. The party had lost out when antagonistic caste politics overwhelmed Bihar and UP. Caste antagonism has ebbed in Bihar.
“The backwards, the upper castes, the Dalits and the Muslims voting on one platform was unthinkable in Bihar until 2005. Now, that process has crystallised and Nitish Kumar is the leader of a social coalition that could have been the Congress’s and he’s talking the same language as Rahul Gandhi – a centrist, developmental approach,” points out a state Congress leader. The political climate can be receptive to the Congress. But is the Congress receptive to the political and social signals?
Aspirations are for real
Caste antagonisms may have subsided but political aspirations of the lower castes have not. Backward empowerment is now taken for granted by all parties – with the possible exception of the Congress.
In an election that was dubbed as the end of Yadav supremacy, at least 39 of them won in Bihar. In other words, the new rainbow social coalition is also based on proportionate representation for all castes. (see Identity politics). In contrast, 19 of the 22 people who garlanded Rahul Gandhi at a Congress function in Uttar Pradesh recently were from a particular upper caste, a party leader pointed out.
“Unlike the BJP, which was quick to respond to backward caste aspirations, the Congress has not been successful in accommodating them. This remains a serious weakness, particularly in northern states,” says Sudha Pai, professor of political science, JNU.
Congress’s assertions of being a socially broadbased secular party get challenged on this aspect.
While Sonia and Rahul have been reiterating the necessity of organisation building, nothing much has been done to create leaderships at state levels. That’s why Bihar Congressmen want Wasnik and Rahul to win elections.
In all states where it is not in power, the Congress faces a strong regional leader – including those from the BJP – who is popular and identifiable. Congress does not have a strong regional leader in most states, save Kerala. That’s why it’s Rahul Gandhi versus the respective state/regional leader everywhere. “Without strong leadership at the state level, the Congress cannot overcome its weaknesses,” says Pai.
In Bihar, Congress tried two things to create a new leadership, including, among backwards. One, it brought Sadhu Yadav and Pappu Yadav, former RJD leaders, into the party.
While Sadhu Yadav got all of 7000 votes, Ranjita Ranjan, wife of Pappu Yadav, lost by 40,000 votes. The lesson is that defectors and the discredited cannot be the remedy.
Then, the Indian Youth Congress conducted an election and found a new president in Bihar – Lallan Yadav. Within months, he mired himself in controversies, including the seizure of several lakh in cash from his custody during the campaign. The lesson: organisational election cannot be an end in itself.
In Bihar – as in TN, West Bengal and UP – the Congress needs a strong leader. Until he or she can come up through a democratic process, the party has to handpick someone and empower him or her to go the whole hog.
It is time that the Congress gave up its timidity and allowed ambitious state leaders. The future of the party will hinge on its ability to put into the frontline an array of ambitious – even ruthless – leaders.
If the party is to realise the full political potential of its welfare schemes – as Sonia exhorted AICC delegates to – an organisation led by leaders who reflect the vision of the high command and social realities of the particular state is necessary. This move can only be a top down approach, at least as of now.