While the incumbent Janata Dal-United-Bharatiya Janata Party regime led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the Opposition formation led by Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan are ranged against each other, the Congress party is trying to project itself as an electorally acceptable third force.
It feels that anti-incumbency and the JD-U's alliance with the BJP will push a sizeable electorate towards the Congress. It hopes to provide an alternative to the electorate disillusioned with the anti-development, anti-middle class perception about Lalu's politics. In fact, the Rashtriya Janata Dal's electoral symbol, the lantern, symbolises Lalu's antipathy towards electricity and development.
There is a widely held belief that Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi will attract the youth. A Muslim, Mehboob Ali Qaiser, was made president of the state Congress party. Meira Kumar, the MP from Sasaram and Lok Sabha Speaker, daughter of a formidable, charismatic Dalit Congress leader Jagjivan Ram and married to a backward caste (Kurmi) husband, is being projected as the chief ministerial candidate.
These are the ways in which the Congress is trying to woo various social groups. Both these leaders, however, are hardly able to connect and communicate with the common people.
Moreover, sections of upper caste Hindus are apparently not happy with the incumbent regime. One of the reasons is Nitish Kumar's announcement to give proprietorship to the bataidars (share-croppers). They are expected to flock to the Congress. Smelling its electoral implications, Nitish Kumar has already decided not to implement the scheme.
But there is more to it than meets the eye. Mere superficial social engineering is probably not enough for winnable electoral management.
Do people really look at the Congress with hope?
What is the roadmap and vision of the Congress for the development of contemporary Bihar?
Is there any change in the character and social composition of the Congress leadership?
The Congress has not spoken on why its ruling Bihar (till 1990) keep it as an 'internal colony' of India?
Why did it neglect public investment in controlling the recurrent, devastating, floods? Why does it continue to have its leaders mostly from the upper castes, mainly Bhumihars?
Given the history of political rivalry between the Rajputs and the Bhumihars, it would be difficult for the Congress to get the support of both castes simultaneously. The Congress leaders are yet to speak about how they would take steps towards augmenting power production, agrarian development and industrialisation and they are silent on establishing centrally funded educational institutions.
The Planning Commission and the Finance Commission of the Union government have not shown anything to woo Bihar, taking it out of the morass of politically perpetuated economic backwardness. Mere communal-secular binary of political rhetoric will hardly help the Congress to attract enough votes to get power.
The lower backward castes of Hindus and Muslims, the lower Dalits, and women have got substantial empowerment from Nitish Kumar's incumbent regime. Sections of poor Dalits and other landless agricultural labourers in certain parts of Bihar form the support base of the Communist Party of India-Maoist Leninist Liberation. Some of the upper Dalits will also go to Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party.
In a multi-angular electoral contest, such factors will make a serious impact on the electoral outcome. On a large number of seats, the margin of victory will be very narrow, and the votes chipped in by such forces, including the rebels, will have serious impact on the major stakeholders.
Muslim votes will be divided along all the formations. The upper caste Hindu votes are expected to go mainly to the JD-U-BJP alliance and the Congress. In short, the Congress does not have a strong, dependable, solid support base among a given, numerically significant, social group.
The Congress campaign emphasised mostly on central government funds allocated for Bihar and their allegation that the Nitish Kumar-led administration has not been able to spend all of them. It is increasingly becoming a thing of common knowledge that the state administration has proved to be more efficient in utilising central funds than all its predecessors.
The Congress regime in Bihar prior to Lalu Yadav was much worse in utilising central funds. And the Congress has to share all the blame of the underdevelopment of Bihar during six decades of its rule since Independence, both in Bihar as well as at the Centre. So this plank will hardly help the Congress gain much votes. People's memory is not that short.
In the first week of July, Jyotiraditya Scindia addressed a public meeting at the historic (once great urban centre and capital city of the first Republic of India) village of Vaishali in north Bihar. People came back hugely disappointed, because the Union minister neither promised them a railway junction connecting the village with the nearby towns, nor a central university for women with professional courses and research in comparative religion, humanities and social sciences. These have been their demand for long.
Even Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Vidyalayas and Kasturba Balika Vidyalayas have not been established here by the central government. Vaishali stands connected with neighbouring towns with roads which have been upgraded as National Highways, but no investment has been made to construct and widen these roads, which remain as dilapidated as ever.
Whereas, these routes have potential of tourism industry by virtue of having got historic sites like Budhist stupas, and Ashokan pillars etc. The rail roads, under construction, connecting Sitamarhi with Muzaffarpur, and Hajipur with Sugauli still remain a distant dream. Such connectivities will offer a good market for agricultural products by the peasantry of Champaran and Sitamarhi.
One of the worst policies of the Nitish regime has been to recruit school teachers on fixed, consolidated, low 'honorarium'. It has once again degraded the profession of teaching; it repels the talent away from teaching. But none of the Opposition parties including the Congress have attacked this devastating policy of the Nitish government.
In late 1989 and early 1990, the Jagannath Mishra-led Congress government had taken a cabinet decision to extend the benefits of gratuity, provident fund, pension etc to the employees of government-recognised minority educational institutions, similar to other government institutions.
Lalu Yadav's government shelved this policy even while proclaiming himself as the messiah of the minorities. The Congress campaign is absolutely silent on it, while making superficial overtures of attracting Muslim votes. If it wishes to discredit both Lalu and Nitish on the issues pertaining to Muslims, then it should raise the demand of justice for the victims of Sitamarhi-Riga riots of October 1992. But the Congress is as much silent on the issue as Lalu and Nitish.
It seems the Congress think-tank is devoid of the ideas and programmes with which it could regain its lost base in Bihar. They seem to have become complacent considering that all the voters disillusioned with Lalu and Nitish have got no other option but to flock around the Congress. Even a naive political manager and policy shaper knows it too well that such a deficiency in pro-active approach can hardly be helpful for the Congress.
Only an aggressive, comprehensively well-explained, realistic, and pragmatic policy prescription for the overall development of Bihar, promising to contain floods, developing food-processing and agro-based industries, agricultural development, power production, road construction, enhancing the per capita rail road availability, and all kinds of infrastructure development can attract people towards the Congress.
The people of Bihar are really desperate to see development. They no longer wish to continue as India's internal colony. They can no longer suffer the ignominy of supplying cheap labour to the developed parts of India.
The Bihar Congress needed to chalk out its political strategy accordingly. Only then could it hope to make a base for itself in Bihar, competing with Nitish Kumar's performance.
The Congress does not seem to have that kind of leadership and vision.
Dr Mohammad Sajjad teaches history at Aligarh Muslim University.
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