Bihar’s Grand Alliance received a boost on December 20 when Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party joined the Opposition alliance. He followed former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who had entered the Grand Alliance after leaving the ruling National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, in February.

The Grand Alliance was formed ahead of the 2015 Assembly election with the Janata Dal (United) of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Congress as its main constituents. The alliance won the election, only to see Kumar split away and rejoin the BJP-led coalition in 2017.

Since then, however, the ranks of the Grand Alliance have swelled, with the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party becoming its eighth member. The others are Manhji’s Hindustani Awami Morcha, Sharad Yadav’s Loktantrik Janata Dal and Bihar’s three communist parties. It is widely expected that the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party will lend support to the coalition for next year’s general election.

While the Grand Alliance’s expansion is seen as an indication of the Opposition’s growing strength, it has not enthused the Congress. The party’s state leadership is said to feel that its new partners will end up eating into its share of seats, pushing it to the margins. Their worry is not without reason.

The Grand Alliance is banking on Kushwaha to deliver a substantial chunk of the Koeri vote. The Koeris are Bihar’s largest Other Backward Classes group after the Yadavs, who are considered to be in the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s corner. Constituting nearly 8% of the population, the Koeris could help the Grand Alliance derail the ruling coalition’s aim of repeating its performance in 2014, when it won 31 of the state’s 40 Lok Sabha seats. Kushwaha’s party is expected to get three to four seats. With Manjhi likely to get a seat or two as well, the Congress could end up contesting only eight to 10 seats as compared to a dozen in 2014.

“Recent victories in three states have provided us the momentum to take on the BJP in Bihar, but our dependence on allies is hurting the party’s interests,” said a senior Congress leader who did not want to be identified. “If we keep conceding seats like this, we might end up becoming an insignificant player in the state, losing any hope of a revival.”

While the Grand Alliance’s expansion has indeed given them an edge over the ruling coalition going into the election, the leader contended, it has “further weakened” the Congress. “The local leadership gets demotivated with such developments,” he said. “Local leaders work in their constituencies for five years, but as election gets closer they have to campaign for candidates of other parties. Its demoralising.”

Moreover, “these outsiders” do the Congress no good even when they win. “If they win, they work for whoever they owe allegiance to and if they lose, they go back to the parties they had come from,” the senior leader said. “How should an ordinary Congress worker feel in such a situation? It’s disheartening and a major cause for party’s decline in the state.”

The Congress’s local leadership has every reason to be dismayed, argued the political commentator Shashi Bhushan. Notwithstanding its national presence, the Congress is a “junior partner” in Bihar and, so, the more parties join the Grand Alliance the fewer seats there would be for the grand old party.

“The Rashtriya Janata Dal will not part with seats that have significant populations of Yadavs and Muslims,” Bhushan explained. “It has to be the Congress that will have to make the sacrifice and that must indeed be demoralising for its local leaders. They oppose these parties for five years and then end up canvassing for them. It doesn’t help them build trust with the people.”

Since Nitish Kumar broke away from the Grand Alliance in 2017, its ranks have swelled. Photo credit: IANS

Saibal Gupta of the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna, argued that the Congress in Bihar was not being held back by its allies so much as by “upper caste domination”. The party is led by people from upper caste groups “who are still living in the 1980s” and have no popularity, he claimed. “Until they coopt the backward classes, the party has no hope of making inroads in the Hindi heartland,” he said. “The Congress leadership should have asked Kushwaha to join the party instead of the alliance. Had they assured him that he would be their chief ministerial candidate, he would have joined the party, giving it a backward caste leader and a chance to win the support of the Koeris.”

Professor DM Diwakar of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, argued that the Congress has no choice but to work with its regional allies if it wants to defeat the BJP. “Wins in just three states have made these smaller parties flock to the Congress, so it needs to focus on the macro level and not get embroiled in such micro level issues since defeating an aggressive BJP should be its top priority,” he said. “If they win the 2019 election, five years is a long time to chart the course of revival in the state. It shouldn’t take them long.”

The Congress’s national leadership does not seem to share the worry of its state leaders. Sahktisinh Gohil, who oversees the party’s affairs in Bihar, said none of Grand Alliance’s members has “any lust for seats”.

His sentiment was echoed by the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav. “This is not an alliance of parties but of those who want to save the nation and the Constitution,” he claimed. “We are united and shall remain united.”

Picking up a bargain?

The Congress may have missed a trick by not inviting Kushwaha to join the party, but so did the BJP by letting him leave. Soon after Kumar dumped the Grand Alliance and rejoined the National Democratic Alliance, there were murmurs that Kushwaha was unhappy with it. As Kushwaha started pressing the alliance for more seats to contest in 2019, the BJP felt it no longer needed him. The reasoning was that Kushwaha shared his base comprising the Koeris and the Kurmis with Kumar. And Kumar clearly was a much bigger draw. That the Lok Samta Party had won just two of the 23 seats it contested in 2015 only bolstered the BJP’s argument. So BJP chief Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi ignored his demands for more seats, prompting him to quit the ruling alliance.

Sensing an opportunity to eat into Kumar’s vote bank, strategists of the Congress and the Rashtirya Janata Dal quickly approached Kushwaha, aware that if he manages to swing 4%-5% of the Koeri-Kurmi vote, there was no stopping the Grand Alliance. Though the Koeris and the Kurmis are considered to be aligned against the Yadavs, the Grand Alliance is confident of bringing them together, just as it did in 2015, when with Kumar on board, it won won 178 of the 243 Assembly seats.