In its jubilation over playing a cameo in checking the Modi wave from inundating Bihar in the recent by-elections, the Congress should not forget that it has much to learn, and gain, from the school of politics espoused by the state's former chief minister Nitish Kumar, which has three principles defining it – realism, renunciation and realignment.

These three Rs are essential for any party hoping to emerge from an ignominious electoral battering, but it is particularly applicable to those who draw sustenance from a dynast or solitary charismatic leader. However, unlike Nitish and his Janata Dal(U), the Gandhis and the Congress have not drawn appropriate lessons from their deplorable performance in the Lok Sabha election that concluded in May. Their wait for a resurgence in north India will likely remain delayed, regardless of victories here and there.

Realism ensured that Nitish’s vanity, present in every politician to varying degrees, did not cloud his interpretation of the general election verdict. It spoke to him of the alienation of people from his rule, his inability to expand his party’s social base, the caste-class divide which wasn’t starkly visible because, as pundits argued, the Narendra Modi factor had papered over it and, above all, the grim possibility that his continuation as chief minister would prompt his rivals to fan the disenchantment against him.

Bruised ego

What must have particularly bruised Nitish’s ego was the realisation that his past electoral victories had depended on his alliance with the BJP and that his administrative skills had been celebrated only because the powerful upper castes succeeded in their mission of dislodging Lalu Prasad Yadav from power through him.

The breakdown of the JD(U)-BJP alliance last year was almost simultaneously followed by a litany of complaints against his administration. Hailed earlier as a prime ministerial candidate, he was now dismissed as an inept chief minister who needed to be voted out to save Bihar.

Powerful sections among the upper castes chaffed that their vote for the JD(U)-BJP alliance hadn’t yielded gains for them to the degree that they had wished for. Their anger against Nitish arose from his attempts to build a social base independent of the BJP, manifest in his courting the extremely backward castes (the so-called EBCs) and Mahadalits, or Dalit sub-castes other than the Pasis.

Nitish's constituency

Yet Nitish's new constituency suffered from serious political limitations. In Bihar’s notoriously hierarchical society, EBCs and Mahadalits turn out in large numbers and cast their votes in accordance to their will only when they enjoy protection from the state administration or a dominant caste. Nitish belongs to the Kurmi caste, which along with the Keoris – both OBCs sharing a similar socio-political consciousness – constitute just 8% of Bihar’s population and are not uniformly spread across the state.

Thus, they were in no position to provide protection to EBCs and Mahadalits in a large swathe of Bihar on polling day, as both the state administration and upper castes had turned hostile to Nitish in the months before the election. A large support base has little meaning for politicians unless it translates into votes.

Realism entails thinking of alternatives, and retreats have meaning only if designed to win the next battle. Though it is true that two plus two in one election doesn’t yield four in the next, yet, on the face of it, had the JD(U), Lalu’s RJD and the Congress fought the Lok Sabha election together, their respective vote shares of 15.8%, 20.1%, and 8.4% together would have prevented them from being decimated if not assuring them an outright victory.

Between the Congress and the RJD, the latter’s support was vital to Nitish. For one, it had the potential of consolidating the lower castes and providing a sharp ideological edge to Bihar’s political battle, which had upper castes trying to wrest power from predominantly OBC parties.

Fractured phalanx

But then, the OBC phalanx had weakened precisely because of the competition and rivalry between Lalu Yadav and Nitish. Until this year’s general election, the state’s politics had primarily revolved around the duo, with the Congress and BJP in supporting roles.

Could Nitish and Lalu overcome their hostility and suspicion to reinvigorate OBC politics? Partly, it was about political exigency – it was now no longer an issue of who between them could become chief minister, but about protecting their social bases from annihilation, of ensuring that the legacy of OBC, or Mandal, politics survived. Lalu understood this as much as Nitish. It became imperative for Nitish to allay Lalu’s suspicion in order to win his faith and support.

Call it a confidence-building measure, realism demanded that Nitish step down as chief minister. But such is our cynicism about the Indian politician that when Nitish declared he was resigning, many believed it was yet another hackneyed drama being enacted to rally his party’s foot soldiers behind him. But the chief ministerial mantle Nitish did pass on to Jitan Ram Manjhi, who belongs to the Musahar, or the rat-catcher, community. Think, when was the last time you heard of a leader who founded a party stepping down as chief minister, not because of a chargesheet filed against him or her, but voluntarily.

Congress response

Contrast Nitish’s response debacle to that of the Congress to its own stunning battering. The announcement of the general election results on May 16 had Congressmen spring to the defence of Rahul Gandhi, who was the face of the party's campaign. They said the corporate-owned media had helped build Narendra Modi, that the BJP had spent lavishly on its campaign and that the party lost so badly because the Manmohan Singh government’s credibility had eroded.

Undoubtedly, stray voices demanded accountability from the leadership. But their voices were drowned out. Never did you hear the Congress publicly express the possibility of Rahul Gandhi lacking stellar leadership attributes or not possessing the indefinable X factor that endears a leader to the masses. Even the Antony committee, appointed to examine the causes of the party’s defeat, did not apportion blame to the leadership.

On the much-vaunted charisma of the Gandhis the Congress still relies to craft its comeback. So Sonia Gandhi will remain the unquestioned leader and Rahul Gandhi the prince-in-waiting until the party wins a Modi-like majority. For all the importance the Congress accords to the Gandhis, the dynasty has been unable to win back states from where they have been out of power for years, in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and now perhaps even Andhra Pradesh.

Indeed, realism and renunciation are not arrows in the Congress’s quiver. True, Sonia stepped aside in favour of Manmohan Singh to become prime minister in 2004. No doubt, his government’s policies augmented the Congress vote kitty in 2009. But, really, could Singh have inspired an enduring realignment of social groups at the grassroots, to replace the shattered Brahmin-Muslim-Dalit coalition that had served the party so effectively for so long?

Ambition is subordinated

By contrast, Nitish’s decision to step down as chief minister created a condition conducive to realignment in Bihar. You may say Manjhi is tethered to Nitish, who will determine the degree of independence his successor can enjoy. Yet we all know a chief minister can use power to create a following of his or her own and that he or she could become powerful enough to betray his or her anointer. Again, considering that Lalu commands the highest vote share in the RJD-JD(U)-Congress alliance, he could soar higher than Nitish in the future and emerge as the predominant partner.

This is precisely why Nitish’s recent manoeuvrings have immense political significance, subordinating as he has his personal ambition, at least temporarily, to the larger ideological imperative of OBC forces coming together. These are still early days to imagine the future shape of OBC politics or how the individual leaders of this phalanx will fare.

However, considering that Modi was projected as an OBC leader in north India, the BJP may have unwittingly created a pan-Indian OBC identity, which had been anchored, till now, in state politics. All this is bad news for the Congress, seemingly delighted at what seems to it a receding of the Modi wave. Unless it learns, adopts and adapts the three Rs from Nitish’s school of politics, it might never see the return of its glory days, now reduced to just a dream.

A Delhi-based journalist, Ajaz Ashraf is the author of  The Hour Before Dawn, HarperCollins India, releasing December 2014.