With friends like Lalu, Congress needs no enemy

Last Updated 25 March 2019, 19:02 IST

Ever since it was ousted from power in March 1990, the Congress in Bihar has never looked in such a resurgent mood as in March 2019. There are reasons why it is so. One of the top parliamentarians, Tariq Anwar, who won the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from Katihar in Bihar as NCP candidate re-joined Congress last year. This year, at least three top BJP leaders, including two sitting BJP MPs – Shatrughan Sinha and Kirti Azad (besides former BJP MP from Purnia, Uday Singh) — joined Congress and threw their hat in the parliamentary poll ring.

Shorn of winnable candidates, the Congress hasn’t had in a long time such a galaxy of stars — including its own home-grown leaders like Meira Kumar (former Lok Sabha Speaker), Nikhil Kumar (ex-Governor of Kerala, who was earlier Delhi Police Commissioner) and Shakeel Ahmad (former Union minister) to contest from Sasaram, Aurangabad and Madhubani respectively.

However, one hand that rocked the Congress’ cradle was Lalu Prasad. Recuperating at the Ranchi hospital RIMS (Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences) after being incarcerated following his conviction in multiple fodder scam cases, it was Lalu who was the final arbitrator in the seat-sharing pact among the constituents of the Mahagatbandhan (Grand Alliance) in Bihar.

Eyebrows were raised when the RJD announced the seat-sharing arrangement among the partners of Grand Alliance. While Lalu’s outfit bagged the lion’s share, with 20 Lok Sabha seats to contest, the Congress was doled out merely nine seats. Leaders like Nikhil Kumar were denied tickets and an attempt was made to clip wings of Kirti Azad and Shakeel Ahmad, too. While Nikhil became Congress MP from Aurangabad in 2004, his father Satyendra Narain Sinha, former Bihar CM, had represented the constituency seven times since 1952.

“To our utter dismay, Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) got five seats to contest, while Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM and Mukesh Sahni’s fledgling outfit Vikasheel Insaan Party (VIP) were allotted three seats each. Nothing wrong in accommodating the smaller allies, but it’s an undeniable fact that Kushwaha is a one-man party (after many leaders deserted him recently) with a shrinking vote-base. So is Manjhi, the accidental ex-chief minister of Bihar, who has never won a Lok Sabha election,” a senior Congress leader told DH.

The Congress’ angst stems from the fact leaders like Mukesh Sahni, who has never won an assembly or parliamentary poll) have been given undue weightage. A self-proclaimed leader of the numerically-strong Nishads (fishermen) and branding himself as ‘son of mallah’, Sahni’s party VIP will be making Lok Sabha poll debut. Having made a fortune in Bollywood as set designer, Sahni flirted with the BJP during the 2015 assembly elections, campaigning alongside Amit Shah and his team.

“It is shocking to watch how a seasoned politician like Lalu Prasad, who enjoys a cordial relationship with the top Congress leadership, could marginalise Congress. That, too, to accommodate leaders like Manjhi and Sahni, whose outfits like HAM and VIP have never contested LS polls earlier,” argued noted social scientist Ajay Kumar.

Political analysts say there is something more than meets the eye. “Money power seems to have played its role in deciding seats. Besides, it’s equally true that a weakened Congress always suits Lalu, who would never like his junior ally to resurge,” averred a senior journalist, who did not want to be identified. “In theory, the Mahagatbandhan may look like an alliance of like-minded secular parties representing all sections of society. But poll arithmetic may not necessarily be good chemistry at the ground level. And this may upset many a calculation,” he added.

Lalu’s key aide and former Rajya Sabha member Shivanand Tiwary, however, sees nothing wrong in allotting fewer seats to Congress. “I know Lalu ji for the last 45 years. Even behind bars, he knows the pulse of the people. He knows if the BJP-led alliance has to be stopped in its track in Bihar, then the anti-BJP votes should not get divided. It’s against this backdrop that smaller allies like HAM, VIP and RLSP have been given due importance so that the Dalits, Mahadalits, extremely backward class (EBC), other backward class (OBC), besides the numerically-strong Yadavs and Muslims stand by the Mahagatbandhan,” argued Tiwary.

NDA resentment

The scenario is not so encouraging on the other side of the fence, either. Murmurs have started how Nitish Kumar, the JD(U) strongman, has scuttled the chances of those with whom he reportedly had antipathy. “Or else, how can one explain that Putul Kumari, widow of former Union minister Digvijay Singh (who served in the Vajpayee regime) was denied ticket from Banka,” argued a senior BJP functionary here. Putul, who won the 2010 Lok Sabha bypoll from Banka after her husband’s death, joined the BJP (since Digvijay got shabby treatment in the JD-U).

Similar is the case with BJP MP from Siwan Om Prakash Yadav, who, despite defeating jailed RJD leader Mohammad Shahabuddin’s wife Heena Sahab twice, has been denied ticket in 2019. The grapevine also has it that Nitish wanted Union minister RK Singh to be benched in Ara. Singh, the former Union home secretary-turned-BJP MP from Ara, was quite critical of the Nitish regime and had questioned the quality of governance in Bihar recently. Nitish wanted his own nominee to be fielded from the BJP seat. However, Singh, the no-nonsense Rajput leader, managed to swing the tide in his favour.

Experts argue that in theory, such alliances look formidable but the deep distrust between the two constituents may upset the applecart. Given Nitish Kumar’s poor track record of ‘trust’ and Lalu Prasad’s efforts to clip Congress’ wings, no political pundit would venture to predict which way the wind will blow in Bihar.

(Published 25 March 2019, 16:43 IST)

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