Congress in Bihar: The Gameplan

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The Congress is certain it is going to upset the established players in Bihar. Raman Kirpal details Rahul Gandhi’s revival plan. Will it work?

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

FIFTY NON-BIHARIS are huddled in a conference hall in Patna’s ITDC Kautilya hotel. They form an electoral college working for Rahul Gandhi. They are sifting through the many applications heaped in front of them. There are 414,464 CVs and they are all ‘compulsorily’ from Bihar residents less than 35 years of age wanting to be Youth Congress members. They are potential Congress party candidates in the October Assembly election.

On June 10, as these applications were being scrutinised, the newly-appointed All India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge of Bihar, Mukul Wasnik, landed in Patna. He found the city plastered with giant posters of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Jagdish Tytler, outgoing AICC in-charge of Bihar, new Bihar Congress president Mehboob Ali Kaiser, and even his own. Thousands of Congressmen received Wasnik at the airport, Kaiser among them. After this, an open jeep ride to the party office at Sadakat Ashram — 12 km from the airport — held up Patna’s traffic for hours.

Parties opposed to the Congress sneer at such a show, saying some things in the Congress will not change. The Rahul Gandhi camp, however, has its own take. They call it energy in motion, and believe it will propel the Congress into winning again in Bihar. This section says Lalu Prasad and his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) will be decimated and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) [JD(U)] will be jolted. The state has 243 Assembly seats, of which the JD(U) has 81, the RJD 56, the Bharatiya Janata Party 54, the Lok Janashakti Party 12, and the Congress 10.

One of the key men is Rahul Gandhi. He began experimenting in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, where he handpicked nominees and gave them tough seats. Ten of Rahul Gandhi’s 12 Youth Congress candidates won, including Manik Tagore, who beat the formidable LTTE sympathiser and MDMK General Secretary Vaiko from Virudhunagar.

The proscenium has now shifted to Bihar. The Congress has sounded the bugle for regional parties riding on a personality cult or the caste factor. Like any party, the Congress claims it will win 150 seats in Bihar. “We will have a livewire for the election,’’ Kaiser says. In the current Assembly, even the JD(U) and the BJP together don’t have 150.

Nitish Kumar, still the new kid on the block in some ways, has won the confidence of the Kurmis, his own caste. He has also impressed everyone, including detractors in other parties, by Bihar’s steady progress in infrastructure. “Let’s give the devil his due,” says Kaiser. The CM was quick to sense he could gain Muslim votes by his performance. That’s probably why he snubbed the BJP, a coalition partner, for bringing out posters showing him with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, when the BJP held a two-day national convention in Patna in the beginning of June.

The Congress last headed a Bihar government in 1984. Since then, Bihar has been a sore point with the party. Its inability to have effective representation in the legislature made the Congress virtually irrelevant for years. The serious slide began when regional political formations gathered strength. Every thing went downhill: vote percentage, organisational structure, party morale. The Congress fielded only 54 candidates during the 2005 Assembly election. Hope, thus, almost wholly rests on what is being described as the ‘Rahul factor’.

A month-long membership drive has resulted in 4.14 lakh youngsters from all castes joining the Congress

In early January, Rahul Gandhi went on a membership drive to Champaran, Patna, Rohtas, Gaya , Munger, Bhagalpur, Katihar, Purnia, Kishanganj, Madhubani and Darbhanga. His message was simple: enroll members and get elected at the panchayat and the ward levels. You could contest the Assembly election if you win the Youth Congress polls. He told youngsters that the Congress would not ‘parachute’ candidates, adding he would not let strangers or ‘nominated’ candidates contest. He said it was up to the youngsters to become leaders.

The equation is that the more members a person enrolls , the greater their chances of winning Youth Congress elections. Unlike in the past, systems are being put in place to prevent bogus membership. This reduces chances of winning by proxy votes . The Youth Congress electoral college issues double bar codes (one on the application and another on the receipt for R s 15) to ensure that membership drives are not fudged. Also, former Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh’s Foundation for Advanced Management of Elections (FA ME) makes the voters’ list . FA M E ’s KJ Rao, who made a mark in the 2005 Bihar election as a vigilant Election Commission observer, scrutinise s Youth Congress applications to weed out criminals

The possibility of becoming a Youth Congress office-bearer, and subsequently a potential Assembly contestant, works like magic. A month-long membership drive has resulted in 4.14 lakh youngsters joining in, from all castes. For instance, there is a Rajput, a Brahmin and two persons from lower castes contesting in the Sasaram Lok Sabha segment. There are six Assembly segments here and only one of them is with the Congress currently.

“I felt my adrenaline rush when I listened to Rahul Gandhi at Patna. He said no Assembly candidate would be parachuted by the Congress and that neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi would decide the Assembly candidates this time,’’ says Alok Kumar Singh. Singh is 34, joined the Congress one-and-a-half years ago, and stands a good chance of contesting from Kargahar constituency in Sasaram. “I have enrolled the maximum number of members in the Sasaram Lok Sabha constituency,’’ says Singh, a graduate from the Banaras Hindu University.

Another ticket aspirant Pappu Pandey, 32, has enrolled 1,200 members, which makes him confident of sailing through the Youth Congress election. Yet another claimant, Satish Kumar, 28, has brought in 750 members for the Youth Congress. He is Kushwaha by caste and 60 percent voters in Sasaram Assembly constituency are Kushwahas.

The Congress hopefuls believe their trust will not be betrayed, and that one of them will get the ticket . “Rahulji will not let an outsider in. In Punjab, [Congress MP] Manish Tewari’s cousin Ramandeep Kumar had lost to Ronnie Singh Bittoo in the Youth Congress ele ction. Rahul Gandhi did not give Kumar the ticket. Bittoo was a Congress candidate in the 2009 Lok Sabha election and today he is an MP,” says Singh.

The Congress thinks 100 seats are up for grabs, no matter how powerful an opponent

Rahul Gandhi’s calculation seems to be that the four lakh f resh members w ill be ready to do their bit even if they don’t get an Assembly ticket. This is a tricky assumption that rests largely on the belief that the Congress high command would play fair. Going by the testimony of outgoing AICC in-charge of Bihar, Jagdish Tytler, the party has good reason to stick to its promise. “It is much easier to keep the flock of four lakh new people happy and motivated,” he says. “The Congress had contested only 54 seats in the last Assembly election. We expect to give ne arly 60 percent seats for Rahul’s brigade this time.’’

KAISER BUTTRESSES this argument. “The Congress will be better placed if we surprise opponents with fresh candidates. We know who they are but rival parties don’t.’’ He hints that over 100 seats may go to the Youth Congress this time.

Man Friday All hope in Bihar rests on a plan laid out by Rahul Gandhi
Photo: Sonu Kishan

Senior Congressmen agree with this arithmetic. They think at least 100 constituencies are up for grabs, notwithstanding how powerful the opponent is . There were 24 constituencies where the Congress stood second in the previous election. In nine constituencies, the Congress had lost by less than five percent votes. And there are 27 constituencies where independents either won or stood second. The Congress plans to target these constituencies, besides drawing up plans to retain the 10 seats they won in 2005. This makes it 70 seats .

In addition, there are at least 40 constituencies where the Muslim vote matters. “I don’t say that Muslims will vote en masse for the Congress, but my presence will definitely draw their vote s,” Kaiser claims. Then, the Congress feels encouraged that its vote percentage is on the rise since 2005 — it rose from 5 percent to 14 percent in the recently held Assembly bye-elections.

The Bihar election is crucial and will be an early indicator of political trends. Rahul Gandhi is continuing his Youth Congress experiment in the belief that if the Congress progresses in Bihar, the ripple effect will spread to Uttar Pradesh, where the Assembly poll is due in 2012. And from there, who knows .

WRITER’S EMAIL: raman@tehelka.com

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