As a ripple ran through Uttar Pradesh — and the Hindi heartland in general — with the announcement of the formal entry of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into politics on Wednesday, the Congress in Bihar was largely silent. This, in fact, has been the default mode for the party in the state for some time now.
Ever since RJD leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav met SP chief Akhilesh Yadav and BSP supremo Mayawati over January 13-14, there has been obvious discomfort in the Congress. In the first meeting of the coordination committee of the Grand Alliance in Bihar, the Congress staked claim to 12 out of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state, and subsequently signalled a hardening of its demand.
The party is now waiting to see how Rahul Gandhi’s rally in Patna on February 3 goes. If it is well-attended and well-received, the Congress can conceivably still put some pressure on the RJD to give it at least 10 seats.
The frostiness in the two parties’ relationship has been coming across in several ways. The Independent MLA from Mokama, Anant Singh, who faces about 40 criminal cases, has for example, been saying openly that he would be the Congress candidate for the Munger Lok Sabha seat, a claim that Tejashwi has been refuting. The Munger seat is held by Veena Devi of Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Jan Shakti Party.
The Congress’s contention is that the Lok Sabha election is different from the Assembly election, and that it should be allowed to contest a “respectable” number of seats. The RJD on the other hand, argues that the Congress could win only two seats each in Bihar in 2014 and 2009, and three seats in 2004, and must not put forward an “unrealistic” demand for 2019.
The RJD has sounded out its other partners, Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, Mallah leader Mukesh Sahni, and former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, of the possibility of a “Congress-less” alliance if the Congress remains adamant. Tejashwi has reportedly given them the option of either sticking with the RJD or switching over to an alliance led by the Congress.
The RJD has been also exploring the possibility of an understanding with the BSP, probably by leaving for it the Gopalganj seat, which borders UP and has some BSP presence. It has been in seat-sharing talks with the CPI and CPI-ML (Liberation) as well.
As of now, neither the RJD nor the Congress wants the alliance to break up. However, the onus does lie on the Congress to work harder to save it. It has played a strong card in UP by announcing Priyanka’s organisational role. But in Bihar there is no such option to exercise. What kind of response Rahul Gandhi’s rally gets could determine how far the party is willing to push the envelope.