When Janata Dal (United) president Nitish Kumar called on Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi on Saturday, it was hoped that they would be able avert the collapse of the two-year-old mahagathbandhan – grand alliance – in Bihar.

But the fast-paced developments in Bihar on Wednesday showed that both Rahul Gandhi and Congress president Sonia Gandhi failed to prevail upon the two warring partners of the grand alliance in Bihar-Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal – to resolve their differences.

And eventually the mounting tension between the JD(U) and the RJD over the corruption cases against Lalu Yadav’s son Tejashwi Yadav led to a bitter parting of ways, with Nitish Kumar stepping down as Bihar chief minister on Wednesday evening.

Nitish Kumar did not inform Rahul Gandhi about his resignation but instead conveyed the news to CP Joshi, Congress general secretary incharge of Bihar, shortly before his meeting with the governor. Joshi, it is learnt, tried to dissuade him from taking this extreme step but Nitish Kumar was adamant.

Later, a red-faced Congress put out a statement expressing disappointment over Nitish Kumar’s resignation while maintaining that both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have great affection and respect for the JD(U) president.

The statement further added:

“All of us must remember that the mandate given by people of Bihar is to policies, programmes and leadership of Mahaghatbandhan for full five years. It is also a mandate against the BJP and Prime Minister, Sh. Narendra Modi, who challenged the honour (Asmita) of Bihar. Responsibility lies upon each one of us to respect this mandate.

Congress Party will do everything within its means that this mandate is honoured.”

Interestingly, the official statement contained no reference to the RJD or the corruption cases against Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family members. It was an indirect plea to the JD(U) president that he should not join hands with the BJP.

Congress insiders maintain that Rahul Gandhi has always been favorably inclined towards Nitish Kumar while Sonia Gandhi has a soft corner for the RJD chief. In this particular instance, the Congress leadership found itself in a fix. It obviously did not want to be seen to be condoning financial corruption by siding openly with the RJD. At the same time, it did not want the grand alliance in Bihar to collapse. Consequently, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi spoke to Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, urging them to resolve their differences. But it proved to be a futile exercise.

Body blow to anti-BJP alliance for 2019

The unravelling of the grand alliance in Bihar has dealt a body blow to the efforts being made by the Congress leadership to use this alliance as a foundation of a broad democratic coalition of like-minded opposition parties to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The Bihar alliance was critical for the successful formation of the proposed broad anti-BJP coalition. Apart from the size of the state, it was important to have Nitish Kumar in the opposition camp. With corruption emerging as a major factor in the ongoing political discourse, the JD (U) chief would have emerged as a natural choice to lead this alliance in view of his clean image and his track record in governance.

It was for this reason that the Congress leadership made a valiant attempt to save the Bihar alliance. While Rahul Gandhi’s efforts at mediation failed to yield results, Sonia Gandhi also appears to be struggling to keep the opposition flock together. This is in sharp contrast to 2004 when an energetic and focused Congress president had stitched up a successful alliance which eventually managed to dethrone the Vajpayee government.

But the political landscape has changed dramatically in the last 13 years when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was formed. Despite the controversy over her foreign origins, there was all-round acceptance among the opposition parties about Sonia Gandhi’s lead role in putting together an alternative front. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress heir apparent, does not have the same gravitas or credibility as his mother. But, more importantly, the opposition then did not have to contend with BJP leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi or party president Amit Shah.

The immediate challenge before the Congress is to keep it flock together in Bihar as reports from Patna indicate that a number of Congress MLAs are in touch with the JD(U). It is no different for Nitish Kumar, given the claims made by RJD about some of the JD(U) members of legislative assembly.

Both Modi and Shah are known to be ruthless in their dealings with their political opponents and will go to any lengths to score over them. Ever since the BJP won a resounding victory in the politically-crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, its leaders have launched a systematic campaign against the opposition parties. Practically all opposition leaders have been embroiled in corruption cases with the intention of destroying their credibility and keeping the corruption issue alive.

The BJP leaders also understood the importance of Nitish Kumar in the opposition’s scheme of things and so made a concerted effort to create a wedge between the JD(U) chief and Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have, once again, outsmarted Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.