Rahul Gandhi held a virtual meeting with senior functionaries of the Bihar Congress earlier this month assuring his full time in the campaigning for the Bihar assembly elections and assertively avowed to ‘fight the elections and form the government’ in Bihar.
Rahul’s declaration has brought into sharp focus the pivotal role the Congress is likely to play in the opposition camp in the upcoming state assembly elections. He exhorted senior party leaders to take all the crucial decisions regarding polls, start working for elections and strive to build a new government in Bihar.
His assertions gave ample indication that Rahul, who was hitherto reluctant in even giving appointments to senior leaders, is now engaging himself and even making strategies for the party.
The upshot of his efforts will be seen in the run up to polls but the Congress’s strategic move towards prominence as an independent party and important ally of the Grand Alliance is indeed a matter of debate among the Congress and political circles in Bihar.
The Congress, which ruled the state for over 40 years since independence, stands sidelined, fractured and out of power today whereas the political parties which were floated after 1990 have been in power in Bihar for the past three decades.
The Congress has remained out of power in Bihar ever since the last Congress chief minister late Jagannath Mishra handed over the reins of Bihar to Lalu Prasad Yadav on March 10, 1990 after a crushing defeat in the 1990 state assembly elections.
In between, the grand-old party has been in power independently or as coalition leader at the Centre as well as in some states but in the Hindi heartland of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which used to be its citadel once, it has never assumed power in the past three decades.
The reason behind such decline is the fact that it had opted to play second fiddle to the regional satraps like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav and never tried to stand on its own feet and come out of the shadows of the regional leaders.
In Bihar, despite its poor electoral performance after 1990, the Congress has remained in power for brief periods as part of the alliance governments under Rabri Devi and later under Nitish Kumar but they were fortuitous stints not achieved on its own through hard work and with people’s support to the party as such.
Ironically, the Congress had to serve under chief ministers like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, who were byproducts of the JP movement, which derived its ideological sustenance then on the basic philosophy of anti-Congressism.
The electoral performance of the Congress has been awfully poor since 1989 Lok Sabha elections mainly due to its alleged failure in containing the infamous Bhagalpur riots and its misconceived opposition to quota politics after implementation of the Mandal Commission report after 1990.
While the Muslims, which were solidly behind it, deserted it after the Bhagalpur riots in 1988-89, the Backward Castes and the Dalit community abandoned the Congress due to unwarranted opposition by a section of its leaders to the reservation policy for the Backward Castes announced by the then V P Singh government.
The violent strife between the Maoists and armies of landlords in South-Central Bihar fanned by people in power in the post-1990 period led to sharp division of castes with upper castes facing the brunt at the hands of the intermediary castes and the Dalit community.
Gradually, the upper castes shifted their loyalties towards the BJP, which served as a political platform with its carefully crafted strategy of balancing quota politics with anti-Laluism.
With sharp fall in its vote base due to direction-less politics of the then party leaders handling the affairs of Bihar, the Congress turned politically insignificant as its electoral performance touched the lowest ebb after 1990.
After independence when the first general elections were held in 1951-52, the Congress had secured 239 assembly seats – the highest ever - out of 322 seats it contested in the 330-member then Bihar assembly. Shri Krishna Singh became the first Chief Minister and Anugrah Narayan Singh became the Deputy Chief Minister.
The Congress had won 72.42 per cent of total seats and garnered 41.38 per cent votes whereas the opposition Socialist Party could win only 23 assembly seats out of 266 seats it had contested with 18.11 per cent votes.
The area of Bihar was reduced slightly by transfer of minor territories to West Bengal in 1956 under States Reorganisation Act, 1956. Therefore, the number of assembly constituencies in Bihar was reduced from 330 in 1951 to 318 in 1957 elections.
The Congress maintained its sway albeit with gradual and minor falls in its tally every time till the 1967 assembly elections. In 1957, it contested 312 out of the total 318 assembly seats and won 210 seats with 42.09 per cent votes. The opposition Praja Socialist Party (PSP) contested 222 seats but won only 31 seats securing 16.01 per cent votes.
In 1962 polls, the Congress won 185 assembly seats with 41.35 per cent votes. Its tally declined further as the party won 128 seats with 33.09 per cent votes in the 1967 assembly elections, which also witnessed the gradual growth of the Socialists as the Sangathan Socialist Party won 68 assembly seats.
In the 1972 assembly elections, the Congress gained a bit winning 167 seats and the Communist Party of India becoming the runners up for the first time even with a meagre 35 assembly seats.
The period between 1972 and 1977 was tumultuous for the Congress as it witnessed three chief ministers in a row reflecting upon the power struggle within the party. After Congress’ electoral victory, Kedar Pandey was sworn in as the Chief Minister but he was replaced by Abdul Ghafoor, who faced the JP movement in 1974.
Thereafter, Jagannath Mishra became the Chief Minister and it was under his rule that internal Emergency was clamped on June 25, 1975 in the country only to be lifted in 1977 when elections were announced.
The period after JP movement and Emergency saw the emergence of Socialists under the banner of Janata Party, which threw the Congress out of power in the country as well as in Bihar. The Janata Party won 214 out of 311 seats it contested while Congress won only 57 seats losing 110 seats in Bihar.
The Janata Party, however, could not retain power for a full five-year term forcing elections in 1980. The Congress then led by Indira Gandhi, technically called Congress-I, bounced back with 169 assembly seats and Jagannath Mishra became the Chief Minister once again. He continued on the post till August 1983 and was replaced by Chandrashekhar Singh.
The Congress continued its electoral sway in the 1985 assembly elections with 196 assembly seats and 39.30 per cent votes. But the power struggle within the party saw frequent changes of chief ministers as Bindeshwari Dubey was replaced by Bhagwat Jha Azad followed by Satyendra Narayan Sinha and Jagannath Mishra.
It was during this period that the infamous Bhagalpur riots broke out when Satyendra Narayan Sinha was the Chief Minister. The riots coupled with Bofors scandal, Punjab terrorism and LTTE goof-up had its deleterious impact on Congress’ performance in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections as it could win only four out of 54 Lok Sabha seats giving way to Janata Dal, which formed the government with V P Singh as the Prime Minister.
The Congress also suffered substantial loss in the subsequent assembly elections in 1990 with its tally sliding from 196 seats to 71 seats. The Janata Dal won 122 of the 324-member assembly heralding the emergence of Lalu Prasad Yadav on the electoral firmament of Bihar.
The slide that began in 1989 and 1990 elections still continues. The Congress won 29 seats out of the 320 it contested in 1995 assembly polls and 23 out of 324 seats it contested in 2000 assembly elections.
In the February 2005 assembly elections, the Congress had to substantially cut the number of seats it contested to 84 as it has reached electoral alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). It won only 10 seats garnering only 5 per cent votes. In the 2005 October-November assembly elections, it again contested in alliance with RJD on 51 seats and won only nine seats with 6.09 per cent votes.
In 2010 Assembly polls, the party once again contested from all the 243 constituencies but it could win only 4 seats with 8.38 per cent votes. In 2015, it contested from 41 seats and won 27 seats in alliance with RJD and JD(U).
For Rahul Gandhi, turning around the Bihar Congress and regaining its presence seems to be a daunting task as it lacks a charismatic leader who could match the stature of Lalu Prasad or Nitish Kumar. It needs to look beyond the erstwhile Upper Caste-Dalit-Muslim formula and evolve a social formula wherein each caste is represented proportionately instead of piggyback Lalu’s vote bank.