The Congress party can cheer all it wants over its impressive bypoll victories in Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, but it can’t wish away the massive humiliation that’s come its way in Bihar. Results for the assembly bypolls for Bihar’s Kusheshwar Asthan and Tarapur seats have shown that for all its aggressive chest-thumping and self-congratulatory Machiavellian machinations, the Congress remains an electoral pipsqueak in the eastern state.
It was always clear that the outcome of the bypolls to the two seats in Bihar would have no impact on the stability of the Nitish Kumar-led coalition government of the BJP and JD (U). What had made the bypolls interesting, though, was the impact its result would have on the larger issue of opposition unity in the state in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress, riding high on the publicity over its newly acquired ‘asset’ in the state – the feisty youth leader Kanhaiya Kumar – and exploratory missions for a later electoral understanding with the breakaway Lok Janshakti Party faction led by Chirag Paswan and the Jan Adhikar Party of Rajesh Panjan aka ‘Pappu Yadav’, had broken off its alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD. The RJD had decided to contest both the seats, denying Congress’ claim on Kusheshwar Asthan, a constituency that the Grand Old Party had narrowly lost in the 2020 Bihar assembly polls as part of the RJD-led mahagathbandhan (grand alliance). In response, the Congress decided to field its candidates on both seats too, with the party’s in-charge for the state, Bhakt Charan Das, claiming that the alliance with the RJD was over for good and the GOP would contest all 40 of Bihar’s Lok Sabha seats solo in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP, of course, was nowhere in the picture since the two bypolls were necessitated by the death of sitting JDU MLAs. As such, the Congress had tried to make the contests a fight between the ruling JDU, itself and its former senior ally, the RJD. Kanhaiya Kumar, who had quit the CPI to join the Congress amid much fanfare in September, campaigned for the party’s candidate Atirek Kumar, in Kusheshwar Asthan and got his friends – Gujarat Congress working president Hardik Patel and independent Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mewani – to do the same. In his trademark oratorical fashion, Kumar took potshots at the RJD, made veiled attacks at Lalu and his son, Tejashwi Yadav, and, on occasion, criticised the BJP-JDU government too.
Das, with what is now clear was a blatantly false sense of bravado, too hit out at the RJD more than the ruling coalition and, in return, got tutored in political ethics and Bihar politics by the RJD’s Manoj Jha and other leaders. Lalu, who returned to campaigning for his party after a near two-year hiatus due to his term in jail and poor health, did not even consider responding to the Congress’ daily jibes worth his time. He made it clear that he still had a direct line with Sonia Gandhi, who he claimed had spoken to him on the telephone before he left Delhi for Bihar. While his heir-apparent, leader of opposition Tejashwi Yadav, did respond to the Congress’ barbs, Lalu simply dismissed Das as a ‘bhhakchonhar’, a colloquial appellation in Bihar for buffoons.
Das and the Congress, however, kept up the pretence of a certain electoral revival in the making. With Kanhaiya, Patel and Mewani already campaigning for the party, the Congress also tried to lure Lalu’s elder son, Tej Pratap, to declare his support for the party’s candidate in Kusheshwar Asthan, straining ties with the RJD further. Tej Pratap, a leader no Bihar politician – perhaps even voter – really considers as the torchbearer of Lalu’s legacy, however, didn’t go all hog either and declared that though he is supporting the Congress in Kusheshwar Asthan, he would seek votes for the RJD candidate in Tarapur. The Congress next went to former MP Pappu Yadav, a bahubali (strongman) who was once Lalu’s confidante but then split from the RJD to launch his own party, JAP. Pappu Yadav too campaigned for the Congress candidates and dropped enough hints of having a formal alliance with the party for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, or even merging JAP into the GOP.
However, as voting trends began coming in early Tuesday, it became evident that all of the Congress’ grandstanding was nothing more than hot air. The contest was firmly between the JDU and the RJD while the Congress’ candidates – Atirek Kumar in the so-called Congress bastion of Kusheshwar Asthan and Rajesh Mishra in Tarapur – were both struggling to keep their deposits from being forfeited.
As trends solidified into results, the JDU wrested both the seats with its candidates Aman Bhushan Hajari and Rajeev Kumar Singh winning in Kusheshwar Asthan and Tarapur, respectively. The RJD came a close second on both seats and succeeded in turning the Tarapur contest into a real nail-biter; its candidate, Arun Kumar, lost to the JDU’s Rajeev Kumar Singh by fewer than 3,000 votes. The Congress candidates lost their deposit on both seats, with Atirek polling just 5,603 votes (4.28 per cent) in Tarapur and Rajesh Mishra winning a paltry 3,517 votes (2.15 per cent) in Tarapur.
Having cut a sorry figure after robust displays of machismo for the past one month, it remains to be seen whether the Congress will now return to Lalu seeking revival of an alliance with the RJD, or, soldier on to decimation in 2024. The RJD chief, who has always professed his loyalty to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, has already said that he believes the GOP to be the only national alternative to the BJP and wants to see it strengthened but, in Bihar, he has, once again shown the Congress who the real alternative to the saffron brigade is.