Bihar may not settle questions about Congress’s future

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(This story originally appeared in on Nov 11, 2020)

NEW DELHI: The Grand Alliance’s stumble at the final hurdle in Bihar marks a disappointing result for Congress which was convinced that anti-incumbency against Nitish Kumar-BJP could be tapped for victory.

For Congress and RJD, who formed the opposition combine, Bihar polls have only delivered the consolation of running the ruling coalition close. It denied BJP an easy, early-in-the-day victory and instead provided a day-long cliffhanger. Many believe it will up the spirits of the anti-BJP axis that no contest in future would be a breeze for the Narendra Modi-led party.

But besides this, it may only raise questions. Coupled with the disastrous performance in MP bypolls, where Congress was claiming to avenge the mass desertion of MLAs led by dissident Jyotiraditya Scindia to BJP, Tuesday’s results were below par with the party likely to win just 19 of 70 seats it contested.

Bihar was always an RJD show with Congress as a fringe player. But the planning was closely managed by Rahul Gandhi through his trusted aides. Tejashwi Yadav’s campaign, which managed to relegate BJP to second place in the assembly even in the losing cause, marks a positive though it needs to be kept in mind that RJD contested more seats. Congress’s poor show may well have compensated for JD(U)’s under performance on the other side.

Early in the planning, Congress decided to hitch its wagons to RJD despite a strong push from within to go it alone, and it also went with projecting Tejashwi as the CM candidate. In return, it managed to snag over 70 seats to contest.

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The deal was quantitatively good but the meagre tally of 19 MLAs defies the logic of contesting such big numbers. Bihar and bypoll results come in the backdrop of the unrest in Congress over absentee leadership, as highlighted by the dissenting letter of the group of 23 leaders, and indications that Rahul may retake the reins of the party in the coming days.

The defeat may keep hanging the questions about direction of the party and may reflect in occasional comments and demands of introspection from different quarters. Many view Rahul’s style as whimsical and inconsistent, and not fully engaged and invested in the top job.

After Bihar, Rahul would have to provide robust evidence of his engagement to end lingering questions about him and the party.

Ever since it was decimated a second time in Lok Sabha polls in 2019, Congress has been banking on state contests to rebuild the anti-BJP axis. Its pragmatism in joining hands with Shiv Sena and NCP to deny the victorious BJP in Maharashtra and the opposition’s big win in Jharkhand with Congress as ally, has helped boost its sagging morale. While BJP managed to topple the Congress government in MP, the party showed rare survival instinct to repel a similar coup in Rajasthan.

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Congress’s success in managing regular positive notes in the wake of the post-2019 prediction of doom and gloom has been surprising while being viewed as a possible sign of the party waking up to the existential challenge. Running Bihar close may provide some comfort to the party but will not settle the questions about future.

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