Few things tell the story of the gradual shrinking of the Congress in Bihar as the rise and fall and rise of Ashok Choudhary. Once the Congress’s Dalit hope in the state, he was a minister in the Rabri Devi-led RJD-Congress government in 2000-05 and then its state chief. Now, as the Congress battles for relevance, he is the JD(U) Bihar working president, one of Nitish Kumar’s confidants, and his Building Construction minister, who accuses the RJD and Congress of having no love lost for Dalits.
Choudhary’s father Mahavir Choudhary was a senior Congress leader who served multiple terms as MLA and minister in several governments. Starting his career as a Youth Congress leader, Choudhary, a golf lover who holds a doctorate in political science apart from a law degree, was also given successive breaks by the Congress.
When he first won from Barbigha Assembly seat in 2000, he was made Minister for Prisons by Chief Minister Rabri. Choudhary won again from Barbigha in February 2005, but lost when the Assembly elections were held again later that year in November. The Congress then moved him to the organisation side, and made him state party vice-president ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. He was next fielded from the Jamui Lok Sabha seat that year but lost.
In the 2010 Assembly elections, in which the Congress plunged to an all-time low of four seats in Bihar, Choudhary was among the losers. However, Rahul Gandhi, who was then scouting for young leaders, still had faith in Choudhary, then 45. In April 2013, two-and-a-half months after Rahul took over as vice-president of the party, Choudhary was made the Bihar Congress chief.
The first Dalit to head the Congress in the state in 25 years, Choudhary’s appointment was seen as the party’s bid to reach out to the community, given Nitish’s aggressive wooing via the Mahadalit route.
When the Mahagathbandhan including the Congress, RJD and JD(U) won in the 2015 Assembly elections, Choudhary managed to get the important Education portfolio. By the time Nitish ditched the RJD to align with the BJP and remain in power in 2017, Choudhary had reportedly established a good rapport with the CM.
In September finally, the Congress removed Choudhary as state president, accusing him of trying to split the party with Nitish’s help. Choudhary’s retort was that he was being “treated with contempt for being a Dalit”. By March 2018, Choudhary had joined the JD(U) along with three Congress MLCs.
In June last year, Nitish expanded his Cabinet and inducted Choudhary as a minister. And, last month, with an eye on the elections, appointed him as the working president of the JD(U) for looking after organisational and election-related activities.
Seeking votes for the JD(U), Choudhary says, “Fifteen years ago, we inherited a Bihar which was battling caste frenzy. Nitish Kumar has turned the state around… Those who today claim to be the well- wishers of Dalits had ignored them when in power.”
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