In 1978, his grandmother Indira Gandhi rode an elephant to Belchi village in central Bihar where Dalits had been massacred. The dramatic idea and her subsequent one-on-one interaction with the people caught the imagination of the masses and became the first step to her political resurrection and, two years later, return as India’s Prime Minister.
The big question is: Can Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the state (on February 2 & 3) bring about a similar renaissance in his party’s fortunes in the state.
He has caused quite a stir among the young. But if Bihar is to play a significant role in his ‘Mission Lok Sabha 2014’, Rahul (39) will have to quickly breathe some life into the Congress, which last won the Assembly elections in the state 25 years ago, in 1985.
That won’t be easy.
“The party base is gone. You need people to fight a war. Leaving most of our seats to the RJD (which was the leader of UPA in Bihar) over many years threw our people totally out of action”, said Chaudhary Mehboob Ali Kaisar, a young party MLA from Simri Bakhtiarpur in North Bihar and reportedly a member of Rahul’s think-tank on Bihar.
He does have a point. The Congress had contested 51 out of 243 seats in the 2005 Assembly polls as a junior ally of the Lalu Prasad-led RJD. It won only nine seats and polled a mere 6.09 per cent of votes. Again, the Congress could win just two out of 37 Lok Sabha seats it contested in 2009.
Breaking away from Lalu ahead of last year’s Lok Sabha poll, a decision credited to Rahul, has given the Congress its best chance of returning to the centrestage of Bihar politics. It can now package itself as a viable anti-Nitish Kumar, anti-Lalu Yadav force and attract its traditional, but now estranged, vote bank – Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims – back to its fold.
“The challenge before the Congress is to translate the euphoria generated by Rahulji’s visit into tangible electoral benefits in the run up to the Bihar Assembly poll later this year. For this we need a credible action plan and credible leadership at the state level,” Kaisar argued.
The single attempt by the Congress leadership to push for a new leadership fell flat when Chandan Yadav, chosen to head the Youth Congress in Bihar, had to vacate the position. The appointment met with a lot of resistance, one persistent factor in this being that he had pursued most of his politics in Delhi. He had to relinquish the post finally on the grounds that he was over-age for YC-I.
The talent hunt launched at Rahul's behest, too, failed to reach a conclusion. Some names were identified but the no leader was finally selected.
Rahul’s great asset is the freshness he offers, a far cry from the image of the Congress as a party of quarrelling has-beens. His charm holds out the potential of expediting the process of securing for the Congress the support of its core voters of the Indira-era.
The time may also be ripe.
The recently by-election setbacks to the ruling JD(U)-led NDA government in the state, and the rebellion of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s close aide Lalan Singh has demonstrated that Kumar is not as invincible as he seemed at the time of the Lok Sabha polls 8-9 months ago.
And Lalu Prasad is still some way from regaining his popularity of a decade ago.
The local business community, which keeps its ears very close to the ground, certainly sees a window of opportunity for the Congress.
“Thanks to the break-up with Lalu, the Congress is back in the reckoning after a gap of 24 years. It is starting from a scratch. But if the party contests the Assembly poll on its own, it will send out the message it believes in the people and in itself”, said Bihar Industries Association President K.P. Jhunjhunwala.
But Rahul will have to contend with many pitfalls as well.
The young leader’s aggressive courtship of the youth has raised serious apprehensions among the so-called Congress old guard, who may not be vote winners for the party but whose potential for mischief can never be underestimated.
Again, Rahul’s espousal of value-based politics will surely draw all-round applause. But his trips to Uttar Pradesh must have convinced him that the stranglehold of caste and money can hardly be wished away even in neighbouring Bihar.
“Sharing power with RJD in Bihar (2000-04) robbed us of our aggression. We were left with no stomach to fight it out as an Opposition party”, said Bihar PCC Media Committee Chairman H.K. Verma.
During his first foray into Bihar, hope and goodwill were Rahul’s endearing travel companions. Where it takes the Congress from here on will depend largely on what he does to can convert them into enduring electoral assets.