The Congress is on a comeback trail in Bihar, B K Hariprasad, the chairman of the party's screening committee for the state elections, tells Saubhadra Chatterji
Ticket aspirants are thronging your office. How is the Congress selecting the candidates in Bihar?
After 21 years, for the first time, we are trying to fight in all constituencies. We have asked for a list of candidates from each block and district. The block and district committees will recommend the potential names. Then, the pradesh (state-level) election committee will prepare a final list. It will come to our committee. After screening, it will go to the Congress Election Committee. If we get the clearance, we will be in a position to clear the names at the screening committee level before September 15.
But isn't contesting on all 243 seats too ambitious given the position of the Congress in Bihar? Your party is just a marginal force in the state.
There is no dearth of party workers. Congress cadres are there in each and every part of the state. We only have to strengthen them and convert their support into votes. I admit it's a tedious job but we are making our best efforts. I recently travelled to 12 districts. The response I received from the party workers is unimaginable.
Many leaders had left the Congress to join Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal or Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal - United. They are coming back. Many of them are elected representatives in their local areas. In at least 22-23 seats, we will get candidates who are sure to win. The return of these leaders clearly indicates the Congress is reviving in Bihar. In North Bihar, especially in Madhubani and Darbhanga, we will certainly do well. In Katihar and Kishanganj too, our party will come back with a bang.
In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the Congress has been able to revive itself to a large extent. But in Bihar, it has slipped further. What has gone wrong for the Congress in Bihar?
For a long time, we didn't fight alone and depended on Lalu Prasad. In UP, we tried different alliances and finally went alone. In Bihar, for the last two decades, the Congress had just one partner. That was definitely a setback to the workers. We had the strength but we lost it. The alliance with Lalu Prasad helped United Progressive Allliance in New Delhi, but it certainly didn't help the Congress organisationally. It strengthened secular forces at the Centre, which is the only consolation.
Will you consult Rahul Gandhi for selection of candidates in Bihar?
Of course. Remember that the Youth Congress and the NSUI, the student wing of our party, are two very important feeder channels for the organisation. The suggestions of Rahul Gandhi and the two branch organisations will be given a lot of importance. Our list of candidates will be a mix of young leaders and veteran Congressmen. Women will also get a lot of representation. Every section will be properly represented. We are the only party that can take care of all sections of the Indian society.
What are the biggest challenges you think you will face in Bihar? How will you counter Nitish Kumar's development initiatives?
Well, Nitish Kumar is just implementing the central government's schemes. The Centre has provided unprecedented finance to the states. The credit for development of Bihar is shared by the Centre and the state. With all sincerity, we must accept that Nitish Kumar has tried to do his best. But Nitish Kumar must also accept with humility that the Centre has not given the state a step-motherly treatment.
The Congress is for development and secular ideals. Yes, Nitish Kumar can claim some credit for development, but how will he defend himself on the secular plank? He is running a government with the Bharatiya Janata Party. He can't claim to be heading a secular government. He may be secular personally, but he has to share the blame for running a government with BJP. How will he defend himself if someone shows his photograph with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi? All his so-called achievements can be washed out by that single photograph. We will definitely harp on his party's nexus with BJP.
If Nitish Kumar had fought on his own, it would have been a little difficult for us to counter his party. But, as he stays with BJP, he has made our work easy.
When will you start the candidate selection process?
It depends on the state president and the general secretary in-charge. But as I told you, we are getting tremendous response. In almost every constituency, we are getting as many as 10 aspirants. This is a healthy sign.
So, there's a lot of infighting as well...
Not at all. To instigate infighting, you need a lot of leaders.
In the 2005 assembly elections, both in February and December, the Congress' vote share didn't even reach the double-digit mark. What gives you the confidence that you can turn around the party this time?
That was the first time we had a seat-sharing agreement with Lalu Prasad. We just concentrated on 34 seats. So, we could not have expected a miracle. In this election, we are going alone. Our percentage of votes as well as the number of seats will increase.
We are expecting a lot of support from the upper castes, especially the bhumihars. The JDU-BJP combine will not be able to sweep the upper caste votes this time. While Nitish Kumar is going to lose the upper caste votes, Lalu Prasad will not get the Muslim vote. It's wrong to think that the minority votes will go to Lalu Prasad. Our feedback is that many minority voters feel that the Congress is a better option than Lalu Prasad.
What is the party's expectation in terms of the number of votes and the percentage?
We will get respectable numbers. We have already done some internal surveys. But I will not reveal the numbers. All I can tell you is that we will improve out position a lot.
So, you want to be a kingmaker in Bihar?
That's too hypothetical to say now. But in right time, we will take the right decision.
Going alone also allows you to join hands with Nitish Kumar if and when it is required.
That's a decision our party president, Soniaji will take.