The results of the ongoing Bihar elections will be out on November 8 but the Congress is already fancying its chances. Albeit a junior partner in the maha-jutbandhan or grand alliance cobbled together by Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, the Congress has been heartened by forecasts some pollsters have made lately. So much so, that Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has mooted a similar common platform in Assam to counter the BJP in 2016. After all, the saffron juggerut is not likely to roll over Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal, Jayalalitha-led Tamil du or Kerala where the lotus has never bloomed — so it is in Assam where the BJP next year has the opportunity to set up a new base. Gogoi has professed his readiness to make the first overtures in bringing together ‘secular and non-commul’ parties like AIUDF, AGP, Akhil Gogoi’s fledgling Ga Mukti Sangram, Assam and the Left parties. It is another matter that AIUDF has lost no time in pouring cold water over Gogoi’s enthusiasm, batting for a ‘non-Congress, non-BJP’ front. The AGP too has rebuffed Gogoi’s brinkmanship by stating it is not going with the Congress. This is to be expected, for which political party would undermine its bargaining position when the Congress is widely perceived to be in retreat, its much-needed makeover put off endlessly?
In Bihar, the anti-BJP grand alliance was forged after hard bargaining, with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Lalu Yadav’s RJD contesting in 100 seats each while leaving 40 seats for the Congress. Some pre-poll surveys have predicted that the Congress may win nearly half the number of seats it is contesting, with the grand alliance overall likely to touch or be just short of the magic number of 122 in the 243-seat Bihar assembly, while the BJP may have to rest content with the tag of largest party in the House. How these projections fare on counting day remains to be seen, but one thing is clear — erstwhile political foes Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav had to agree to much ‘give and take’ that was painful for both. The Samajwadi Party walked out of the alliance with party supremo Mulayam Yadav livid at the measly five seats offered and the greater importance given to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Sharad Pawar’s NCP too left the alliance midway, while Nitish Kumar faced a near-revolt by some JD(U) leaders denied tickets. Even during crucial phases of campaigning, Lalu Yadav made clear his disinclition to share the platform with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who had cold-shouldered the RJD boss when the UPA was in power.
The Congress is now a minor player in Bihar politics, knows this and is reconciled to it. But as the ruling party in Assam, the Congress would hate to let go of playing ‘big brother’ — which explains Tarun Gogoi ruling out any seat sharing arrangement in a grand alliance. He is open to post-poll alliance with like-minded parties, but what is new about that? Widely perceived to be facing a serious anti-incumbency backlash in its third term with the State hopelessly drifting, the Congress is seeing severe erosion in its vote-bank with the BJP and the AIUDF biting off huge chunks in the Lok Sabha elections last year. A section of political observers believe the Congress may actually be falling between the two stools in its anxiety to keep intact its immigrant and indigenous vote-banks. With APCC president Anjan Dutta’s frequent loud thinking about barely 70 per cent sitting Congress MLAs having chances of winning, it is becoming apparent the Congress is bracing to fight a defensive electoral battle from its high point of 78 seats in 2011. Underhand deals like putting up weak candidates in select constituencies to help a ‘friendly’ party win, or cut into an ‘enemy’ party’s votes, are likely to be fraught with huge risks this time around. But the Congress is in no position to enforce a formula for seat sharing which other parties must accept, hence the worn-out talk about post-poll alliances. Without biting the bullet of painful seat-sharing, all talk of grand alliances will be merely grandiose talk.