Bihar Assembly Election | The Congress: Weakest link in the Mahagathbandhan

The Congress leadership blames its poor results on the unwinnable seats it had to contest in and the presence of the AIMIM, but the party rank and file pins it on imprudent candidate selection and unfavourable alliance arithmetic.

Published : Nov 20, 2020 06:00 IST

 Rahul Gandhi  in West Champaran on October 28, at one of the few campaign rallies he addressed in the State.

Rahul Gandhi in West Champaran on October 28, at one of the few campaign rallies he addressed in the State.

The Congress turned out to be the weakest link in the Mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, in Bihar, winning just 19 seats of the 70 it contested. From the time the seat-sharing arrangement among the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Congress and the Left parties was announced, a section of political analysts was of the opinion that the grand old party had been given more seats than warranted, given its limited social base and moribund cadre. The results proved just that and led to speculation that the outcome would have been different if smaller regional parties such as Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha or Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party had been accommodated in these seats.

The RJD contested 144 seats in the 243-member Assembly whereas the Left parties contested 29—the Communist Party of India (Marxist) four, the Communist Party of India six, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (Liberation) 19 seats. Among the prominent Congress candidates who lost the election were Luv Sinha, son of former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Shatrughan Sinha, and Subhashini Sharad Yadav, daughter of Sharad Yadav, veteran Janata Dal (United) leader who has parted ways with Nitish Kumar.

Also read: COVER STORY | Lessons from the Bihar Assembly election

The Congress, however, downplayed its poor strike rate, saying that the seats given to it were difficult to win for any opposition party as they were BJP and JD(U) bastions. The party’s national spokesperson Pawan Khera said in a tweet: “Those saying that the @INCIndia should have contested on lesser number of seats ignore the fact that some of these seats have been traditional bastions of the NDA. Even then, someone had to fight on these seats.”

AIMIM factor

As the results poured in and it became clear that Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) had won five seats in the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal region, several Congress leaders accused the Hyderabad leader of denting the Muslim vote base of the grand alliance. Allusions were also made that the BJP had tasked the AIMIM leader with denting the opposition’s prospects.

Some Congress leaders minced no words in stating the same. Said Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Congress’ leader in the Lok Sabha: “The BJP’s tact of using [Asaduddin] Owaisi Sahab’s party in the Bihar elections has succeeded to an extent. All secular parties should be alert about vote-cutter Owaisi Sahab.” Pawan Khera went a step further and alleged that Owaisi had been radicalising Muslim youths. The AIMIM contested 20 seats in Bihar. Owaisi rubbished the allegations. In a tweet, he denied that he was a vote cutter and shared statistics to support his claim: “Here are the facts: We contested 20 seats, won 5, MGB [Mahagathbandhan] won 9 & NDA [National Democratic Alliance], 6. On seats where NDA won, the victory margin was higher than our votes. NDA would have won regardless of our candidate. In other words, MGB failed to defeat NDA on these seats.”

Also read: COVER STORY | Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM emerges as a force to reckon with

He also dismissed the allegations of him radicalising the Muslim poor. He pointed out in another tweet: “In Sherghati, RJD fielded a candidate from extremist Durga Vahini but still won. What does that say about radicalisation & ‘vote cutters’?”

Accusation of mischief

Congress leader Shakeel Ahmad Khan told Frontline that “some mischief was done in the last phase of counting”, cementing the NDA’s wafer-thin lead. He said: “In the last phase, the officials did mischief in some constituencies with the clear intention of aiding the NDA that was only marginally ahead of the grand alliance at the time. To cite an instance, our candidate Umesh Ram from Sakra in Muzaffarpur was informed by the returning officer that he had won by 500 votes. As he waited for his certificate, it emerged that the JD(U) candidate had won by some 1,500 odd votes.”

When asked about the modus operandi of such mischief, Shakeel Khan said that the “standard pattern is to reject postal ballots. Besides that, some valid votes are also rejected under the pretext that the button of the EVM machine was pressed twice, and that that is not allowed.”

Also read: COVER STORY | The BJP and the JD (U) in Bihar: Junior partner as big brother

In a late-night tweet on November 10, the Congress’ national spokesperson Randeep Surjewala also made a similar accusation. He tweeted: “How much forgery will we see in Bihar polls? Congress candidate from Kishanganj had won by 1,266 votes. BJP candidate had gone home. But our candidate is not being given a certificate of victory. Democracy is being murdered and mandate being abducted in Bihar.”

On the question of what went wrong with the party in Bihar, Shakeel Khan refused to comment. He said, “It is too early to comment. We need to look at the larger trends and analyse them first.” He, however, did not rule out Owaisi playing spoilsport. Said Shakeel Khan: “He [Owaisi] may have got five seats, but a division of votes and the negative narrative set by him led to our candidates losing in another five or more constituencies. He also created an environment that helped the NDA consolidate a section of the Hindu votes. It was largely his doing that the number of Muslim MLAs has come down from 24 to 19 in 2020 Bihar elections.”

What the workers say

A conversation with the Congress’ State unit leaders underscored the fact that they were not surprised with their party’s performance. A day ahead of the results, a senior Congress leader from Bihar, who was also the campaign manager in a crucial region within the State, admitted to this reporter that the party was unlikely to win more than 20 seats. Despite exit polls predicting a clear majority for the grand alliance, and at least a couple of them indicating a sweep, the Congress leader told Frontline on November 9: “We are not very ecstatic with the exit polls. Our internal assessment is that we would win around 20 seats. Our booth level cadre is non-existent in many of the seats we contested, and there are also constituencies where the caste arithmetic just does not add up in our favour.”

Several other voices from the party had mirrored that point of view in the run-up to the elections. If they are to be believed, the Congress was actually in the battle only in 42 seats.

Also read: COVER STORY | Left parties and AIMIM: Emerging forces in Bihar politics

The observations made by this senior Congress leader were not different from those of the second and third rung leadership of the party. A Congress leader from south Bihar said that the ticket distribution in the party was faulty as non-local candidates were preferred and that it demoralised the cadre. “Many leaders were shifted to other districts as candidates instead of being fielded from their native area of influence. In Vaishali, for example, the Congress fielded Sanjeev Singh. Had he given the ticket from his home town Muzaffarpur, he would have fared well. In Bhagalpur, Pravin Singh has a commanding presence, but he was fielded from Patna Sahib constituency. This not only demotivated the candidates but also led to friction with the cadre. The party paid for this imprudent candidate-selection.” Sanjeev Singh lost to the JD(U)’s Siddharth Patel by 7,413 votes. In Patna Sahib, the BJP’s Nand Kishore Yadav trounced Pravin Singh by 18,300 votes.

Manoj Singh, All India Congress Committee (AICC) member and national coordinator of the party’s vichar vibhaag, said the selection of candidates was the core reason for the party’s poor show. Speaking to Frontline over phone from Sasaram, Manoj Singh said: “The leadership should have chosen the candidates after a detailed feedback from leaders who work on the ground. The party needs introspection on that count, and should be more prudent in the choice of candidates. We do not have a robust booth-level canvassing mechanism, and we cannot afford to antagonise the limited cadre that we have.”

Tejashwi’s remarks

Even before the first phase of polling on November 7, the Congress rank and file were restless about Tejashwi Yadav’s controversial “babu sahib” remark and feared that it would cost them the upper caste votes. Addressing a rally in Rohtas on October 26, Tejashwi said, “When Lalu Yadav was in power, the poor used to walk before ‘babu sahib’ with their heads held high. However, we will take everybody along. Employees working honestly will be rewarded and those indulging in wrongdoing punished.” Tejashwi claimed that he was referring to government officials as “babu sahib”, but many saw it as a sobriquet for Rajputs.

Also read: COVER STORY | The rise of RJD's Tejashwi Yadav as a mass leader in his own right

Tejashwi later clarified that he was stressing the need for social justice, but his statement was decoded by a section of the upper-caste voters on casteist lines, with some drawing parallel to the party leadership’s “Bhura baal saaf karo” remark of the 1990s. Bhura stood for Brahmin, Rajput, Bhumihar and Kayasths, who dominated Bihar’s socio-political scene prior to the emergence of Lalu Prasad as a Janata Dal leader. Congress leaders told journalists privately that Tejashwi did this deliberately to consolidate the “backward caste” votes, but that it would scupper the Congress’ own efforts to win back the upper castes.

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