Nitish Kumar and Rahul Gandhi are part of the same alliance in Bihar. But even if the Janata Dal (United)- Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress combine win the Bihar assembly election, one leader stands to gain more than the other in the grand scheme of things. The next general election may be more than three years way, but the Bihar election verdict on November 8 could well shape the challenge to Narendra Modi’s prime ministership in 2019.

Cult status

A win for the grand secular alliance will embolden Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi to raise the pitch against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and derail his reforms agenda. But it may do little else.

Should Chief Minister Nitish Kumar retain his post come November 8, it would propel him to significance on the national stage. He will be seen as a giant killer, a man who was able to hold his own against Modi – a future prime ministerial candidate.

“Nitish Kumar will acquire a cult status and could emerge as a rallying point for other regional leaders,” said a senior Congress functionary. “He may also start nursing ambitions of moving to the national stage if he pulls off a win in Bihar.”

The chief minister’s credentials as an able administrator are not in much doubt – even his critics find it difficult to fault him on matters of governance. He has the temperament and political acumen to take on his detractors both within and outside his party.

Another Bihar assembly election victory, with the added bonus of defeating Narendra Modi in the process, would only bolster his prime ministerial credentials.

Much ado about nothing?

As for alliance partner Rahul Gandhi, there is a long way to go before the Congress’ vice-president is deemed a worthy contender for the top post once held by his father, grandmother and great-grandfather.

As his party’s undeclared prime ministerial candidate, he failed to defeat Modi in last year’s general election. He is yet to deliver a major election victory for the Congress and question marks persist about his ability to turn around the grand old party’s fortunes or govern the country.

But Congress leaders warn against reading much into the outcome of the Bihar election, even if verdict swings in its favour.

“I don’t see why we are getting so excited about the possibility of a victory for the secular alliance,” said a senior Congress office-bearer. “The Congress is a bit player in the state and is a mere adjunct to the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. We are only contesting 40 out of 243 seats in Bihar.”

Getting priorities right

Party insiders admit that with his aggressive stand against Modi, Gandhi energised listless party workers on his return from a mysterious sabbatical. However, they feel that he needs to prioritise fixing the Congress’ organisational structure.

The Congress’ national footprint is now very small – it's absent from major states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu and is vulnerable in many states. This is largely due to lack of clarity on the ideological front, an eroding support base, a weak organisation and poor state leadership.

The Congress can take some solace from the fact the BJP graph is dipping to some extent. But at the same time, there’s no reason to cheer because its own fortunes have not improved. It has struggled to find its feet after a string of assembly election defeats since its dismal 44-seat tally in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It has a long way to go before it’s considered a viable national alternative again.

“We need to improve our presence in the states to qualify as a pan-Indian party,” said a Congress functionary. “We cannot expect regional parties to win their state elections as a way to prop up Rahul Gandhi as prime ministerial material.”

Tread with caution    

Though he may be better off than Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar will also find the going tough on national stage. His path to 7, Race Course Road will inevitably involve the creation of a Third Front. State-level rivalries will not allow all the regional players to come together on the national stage. For instance, it’s unthinkable for the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party to be part of the same coalition. Similarly, the DMK and AIADMK from Tamil Nadu can never be on the same side of the political divide. And then there’s the main players from West Bengal – the Left parties and the Trinamool Congress. The chances of them burying their differences and presenting a united front are minuscule.

With Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik and Mulayam Singh Yadav, there will also be no dearth of prime ministerial candidates should a Third Front materialise.

That said, Nitish Kumar could still emerge a frontrunner in 2019 if the Lok Sabha elections throw up a fractured mandate. Should Rahul Gandhi fail to strengthen his credentials as a national leader by then, the Congress may be left with no choice but to prop up somebody from among the regional parties to “keep communal forces at bay”.