It was a sweltering summer day on June 7 when Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar landed at Rahul Gandhi’s Tughlaq Lane residence in New Delhi. The Bihar chief minister was trying to cobble together an alliance of ‘secular’ parties but Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad was acting tough.
Kumar met the Congress vice-president that Sunday morning. Neither side divulged what transpired at the meeting but the message was delivered. Lalu Prasad was soon to give up his intransigence and form the Grand Alliance (GA), that finally undid the BJP’s game-plan in Bihar.
As the Bihar results showed the GA leaping ahead, a beaming Rahul walked up to waiting media people at the Congress headquarters and slammed PM Narendra Modi.
The confidence in his voice was apparent. It was not just about his party’s best performance in 25 years winning 27 of 41 seats it contested but the success of an alliance Rahul had played a vital role in stitching, despite strong reservations by a section of his party.
Congress general secretary in-charge of Bihar CP Joshi said as much on Monday: “Rahulji was the sutradhaar (architect) of this alliance, Nitishji its leader and Laluji its shakti (strength) ... The Congress was the first to accept Nitish Kumar’s leadership and then Laluji also endorsed it.”
But political analysts suggested the Congress accepted its “third position in the secular front out of compulsion” as the party realised the ground reality that its political space in Bihar had shrunk over the years.
“There is no Congress organisation in Bihar. They didn’t have workers to manage polling booths and banked completely on the JD(U) and RJD network,” said political analyst CP Bhambri.
He said the Congress should use the opportunity to strengthen and spread its network. “There is also a need to groom local leaders,” Bhambri added.
Initially, Lalu was unwilling to endorse Rahul’s stand of projecting Kumar as the chief ministerial candidate. The RJD chief was also adamant on his demand for a lion’s share of 145 seats. He was flirting with Kumar’s protégé-turned-foe Jitan Ram Manjhi to keep up the pressure on Kumar.
Sources said Rahul was in favour of a grand alliance of “secular forces” to keep the BJP at bay and had told Kumar that on June 7. Rahul was clear, said sources, that if Lalu refused to relent, the Congress would go with Nitish Kumar who enjoyed a clean image.
Convicted in the fodder scam, Lalu flexed his muscles but soon gave in as he sensed the Congress’ strategy. For the first time, the Congress did not make any noise about seat-sharing and accepted the 41 seats offered by Nitish and Lalu.
Subsequently, Rahul ensured the political discourse remained centered around the pro-poor agenda. In his public meetings, he repeatedly spoke about 10 years of development during Kumar’s tenure.
Rahul did not share the stage with Lalu during the campaign. Relations between the two have been “uneasy” after the Congress leader vetoed a UPA government’s ordinance to protect convicted lawmakers in 2013 that would have helped Lalu remain an MP.
Barring a joint rally in Patna on August 30 attended by Congress president Sonia Gandhi apart from Kumar and Lalu, the alliance leaders campaigned separately.