The Congress took a hard look at its options after betrayal by allies in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and concluded there was only one way of dealing with it: field as many candidates as possible there and rebuild the party.
In short: turn the crisis into an opportunity.
The idea, attributed to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, is to field as many candidates in Bihar and UP as is possible, get noticed, step out of the shadow of its regional allies, and bring the party back in reckoning.
“The first step in that direction was taken,” said a party source refusing to be identified, “when the party rejected feelers of truce sent by Lalu Prasad after his announcement of a deal with Ram Vilas Paswan.”
Rahul reportedly insisted the party should move on. And other party leaders fell in line. “We have decided to contest on as many seats as possible in the two states, which contribute 120 seats to the Lok Sabha,” said a Congress official.
Despite being in talks with the Congress, Lalu and Paswan struck a separate deal dividing up 37 of Bihar’s 40 seats between themselves leaving only three for their bigger partner. The SP gave it a similarly bad deal in UP.
The Congress was all-powerful in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh once, giving the states many chief ministers. And then smaller parties like Prasad’s RJD and Paswan’s LJP in Bihar and Mulayam’s SP in UP came along.
In UP, the BSP, the SP and the BJP took over Congress’s support base of dalits, Muslims and Brahmins respectively. And the RJD, the LJP and the BJP in Bihar. The Congress was reduced to a shadow of its former self.
In 2004, the Congress slipped to a pathetic nine Lok Sabha seats in UP, a long way from 83 of the 85 seats it had won in 1984. And its vote share sank from 50 per cent in 1984 to 12.5 per cent in the last Lok Sabha polls.
It was just as bad in Bihar. The party last ruled the state on its own in 1989-90. Its best yet was in 1984 when it won 48 of the 54 seats in the undivided state. But its vote share has plunged since then—from 51 per cent in 1984 to 4.40 in 2004.
The Gandhis see an opportunity in the crisis handed to the party by its allies now. “It’s a blessing in disguise,” said a senior functionary. But the party —which views coalition as a compulsion and not a choice — is realistic enough to realise this is going to take time.
But a start has at least been made. “Now our party symbol and flag will be visible in most, if not all places, in these states. It will give us a chance to try and rebuild our organisations there,’’ an official said.
He added, cheekily, “We only wish that the seat-sharing talks had collapsed about two months back so that we had got a chance to build an atmosphere.’’ That’s the Congress of old, for you.
The party, however, knows exactly how well it can do. Ideally, it should have gone for all the 120 seats, but it plans to field candidates in around 26 in Bihar and 50-odd of 80 in UP.
It will be up against its former allies in some of these constituencies.
The party is also planning to poach candidates with good prospects from both the RJD-LJP combine and SP — such as Sadhu Yadav and Salim Sherwani, and former BJP members like Ramesh Tomar from UP.
And though it has got on its side the little known Mahan party in UP or the NCP in Bihar, in effect it will be going it alone in these states.