It was a visibly thrilled Rahul Gandhi who addressed the media after it became clear that the Mahagathbandhan, or the Grand Alliance of the RJD, JD(U) and the Congress, had won the Bihar assembly elections.
He appeared before the media to offer his reaction to the results even before RJD supremo Lalu Prasad or JD(U) leader and chief ministerial candidate of the alliance, Nitish Kumar, had reacted. Rahul said the result was a strong message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. After offering his comments, Rahul turned to leave, but after taking a few steps, he came back towards television cameras. He had forgotten to greet journalists on Diwali. Having done so, he rubbed it in, saying: “Aur Modiji ko bhi Diwali ki khushiyan.”
Diwali appeared to have arrived a few days in advance at the Congress headquarters as crackers were burst non-stop, sweets were distributed and the beats of dhols and nagaras added to the celebratory mood. The victory was sweet for the party, which had received a terrible drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections and suffered consecutive losses in five state elections in the last 18 months.
The results came as a surprise even for Congress leaders as they had not expected more than 15 to 20 seats. The final tally of 27 seats is the party's best ever performance in the last 20 years. The Congress candidates sought votes in the name of Nitish Kumar. “We had to follow this strategy as we did not have a dedicated vote bank or any political presence,” said a party leader.
The Congress is giving the entire credit for putting together the alliance to Rahul. “It was his foresight, thought and maturity that showed through when he brought the allies together,” said C.P. Joshi, the party's general secretary in charge of Bihar. He is said to have persuaded Lalu to accept Nitish as the CM candidate. “Lalu was initially reluctant. Having Nitish at the helm for five years was not a palatable idea for him. But Sonia and Rahul spoke to him about the BJP being the main enemy,” said a Congress leader.
The Bihar results have again given rise to speculation on when Rahul would take over as party president. “It is a decision that Sonia and Rahul will take. But the Congress workers are eager that Rahul become the Congress president,” said Congress general secretary Shakeel Ahmed.
While the mood in the Congress is upbeat, leaders concede that the party is basking in reflected glory and the Bihar results do not signal any real revival of the party in the state. At best, it has pepped up workers and will stop desertions by leaders. “We still have a long way to go before it can be said that the party is heading for a revival in Bihar. Our organisation is a shambles,” said a Congress leader.
The Bihar victory, however, comes as a morale booster for the party ahead of the next round of assembly elections. Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal go to the polls in 2016, and the party is open to the idea of forming alliances. “We are not averse to the idea of having a mahagathbandhan. However, things will depend on the situation in a given state,” said Congress leader P.C. Chacko.
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who is facing huge anti-incumbency, and has to deal with the exodus of Congress leaders along with his former colleague Himanta Biswa Sarma, has called for a Bihar-like alliance in his state. The potential allies include Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front, the Asom Gana Parishad and the left.
However, there appears to be little possibility of a tie-up between the Congress and the left in West Bengal. “The strong-arm tactics of the left are a huge deterrent. And, we have to bear in mind the dynamics between the two parties in Kerala,” said a Congress leader from Kerala. The Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala is facing anti-incumbency and the left front in the state appears to be on the upswing, gauging from the results of the civic polls held in November. Congress leaders were secretly hoping that the BJP, which is increasing its presence in the state, would damage the prospects of the left, but the Congress appears to have been harmed more. In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress is said to be on a strong wicket, facing little challenge from an extremely weakened left. According to political observers, a large section of the left’s cadre as well as local leadership has moved to Mamata’s party. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress is likely to be part of an alliance with the DMK as a junior partner.
Bihar could show the way for Uttar Pradesh, which will have assembly elections in 2017. Talking about the possibilities of forming an alliance in UP, a senior Congress leader described Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati as a natural ally. However, the party has not yet begun any serious discussions in this regard.
Fresh from the victory in Bihar, the Congress can be expected to be even more aggressive in taking on the Modi government in Parliament. The party will hope for a better alignment of opposition parties in Parliament.
The BJP’s numbers in the Rajya Sabha, where most of the legislative work has been stuck because of a lack of majority for the NDA, are not improving any time soon, especially after the drubbing that it has received in Bihar.