Although not a major player in the Bihar assembly polls, the Congress still has high stakes in it. The outcome of the election later this year will determine the future course of the high-decibel battle launched against the Modi government by its party vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

There is a growing fear in the Congress that the momentum generated by Rahul Gandhi’s campaign will hit a snag if the Bharatiya Janata Party succeeds in dethroning its erstwhile alliance partner Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar in the do-or-die battle. It could even cast a shadow over Rahul Gandhi’s “coronation” as party president, widely expected to take place later this year.

“A BJP win will prove to be a real setback for the party, especially for Rahul Gandhi,” remarked a senior Congress office-bearer.

On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi’s campaign will get a boost if the combine of Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal is able to keep the BJP at bay. Despite being a peripheral force in the important Hind heartland state of Bihar, the Congress will then get an opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of the victory of “secular forces”.

The Congress on its own has virtually no presence in Bihar but is hoping to enter into a partnership with the RJD and JD(U), which will give the grand old party membership of the prospective winning team. It was, therefore, keeping a close watch on Samajwadi Party chief Mulayum Singh Yadav’s move to broker peace between Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar.

Gains and losses

After returning from his mysterious sabbatical, Rahul Gandhi surprised everybody by launching a no-holds-barred battle against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. Unlike in the past, he has not shied away from targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally, accusing him of amending the Land Acquisition Act to help his friends in the corporate sector. Dubbing the Modi government “anti-farmer”, Rahul Gandhi has been on a whirlwind tour of various states affected by the current agrarian crisis.

At the same time, an energised Congress has launched a counter-offensive against the Modi government by questioning its listed achievements on the completion of its first year in power. Pushed on the defensive, a rattled NDA government has been forced to respond to these charges, resulting in an unseemly war of words.

But, after having succeeded in winning the perception war, there is serious concern in the Congress that this work could come undone if the BJP emerges victorious in the Bihar assembly polls.

More importantly, a defeat in Bihar will once again underline the challenges before Rahul Gandhi. The party will face its next big test in the assembly polls in West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in 2016. After three terms in Assam, the Congress has reconciled itself to losing power to this North Eastern state. Similarly, the party is not likely to retain Kerala, which has a history of unseating governments after one term.

Anti-incumbency challenge

The Congress has virtually no presence in West Bengal, where Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee demonstrated her near-control over the state with her triumphant victory in the recent local elections. It’s the same story in Tamil Nadu where the Congress has always been a bit player and has aligned itself with either of the Dravidian parties over the years. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, its partner in the United Progressive Alliance government, is facing a serious internal crisis and there is little possibility of a tie-up with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam whose proximity to the BJP is well-known.

Although the grand old party is hoping for success in Bihar, reports from the state suggest that the Congress- RJD-Janata Dal (United) has a tough battle ahead despite the widespread belief that their combined strength will keep out the BJP.

First, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar have to sort out their differences over seat-sharing. Even if they succeed, the RJD’s Yadav supporters are upset with Lalu Prasad Yadav for tying with Nitish Kumar after decades of battling each other. Last year’s Lok Sabha elections showed that the Yadavs are not averse to voting for the BJP. Expelled JD(U) leader Jitin Ram Manjhi, who has floated his own party, could play spoiler by weaning away a section of the Mahadalit votes. In addition, the Nitish Kumar government has to deal with the anti-incumbency factor. The RJD-JD(U) combine can safely bet on the Muslim vote but the question is: will this be enough to win the state.