The Opposition’s grand alliance in Bihar for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections seems to have run into trouble over the seat-sharing formula between its two major constituents, the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The state has 40 Lok Sabha seats of which the Congress is keen on contesting at least 15. But the Rashtriya Janata Dal is not willing to concede these many seats, and is offering eight or 10.

Leaders of both parties are, however, hopeful that talks between the leaders of both parties will help resolve the crisis. The final decision over seat sharing could be announced after Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s Jan Akanksha rally in Patna on February 3.

The rally, scheduled to be held at the iconic Gandhi Maidan, seems crucial to the seat-sharing formula. A good crowd at the maidan will give the Congress leverage with the Rashtriya Janata Dal. It is therefore pulling out all stops to ensure that the rally is a show of strength.

The Congress’ Bihar unit has set itself a target of ferrying in nearly 2 lakh people to attend the rally. Congress state in-charge Shaktisinh Gohil is monitoring the entire effort, and MLAs and district presidents have been given specific targets of bringing in 4,000 people from each district. “If the party manages to cross the two lakh figure, we will certainly demand a higher number of seats than what is being offered,” said a senior Congress leader from Bihar. “If we fail to bring crowds, we will not have much bargaining power.”

Congress wants more

Spread across 60 acres, Gandhi Maidan can accommodate nearly 3 lakh people. Several prominent freedom struggle campaigns, including the 1942 Quit India movement, were launched from here. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah have addressed meetings at this maidan, which was known as Patna Lawns before Independence.

The last time the Congress organised a rally of this scale at Gandhi Maidan was in 1989, when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi addressed a public meeting here. Though former Congress president Sonia Gandhi addressed a crowd here in 2015, she did so as one of the guests of the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Swabhiman Rally.

Professor DM Diwakar of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna agreed with the Congress leader that any show of strength at this maidan would give the Congress bargaining power. “Through its Jan Akanksha rally, Congress wants to send a message not only to the people of Bihar but also to its allies that it cannot be underestimated in the state,” said Diwakar. “If crowds turn up in large numbers, it will boost the party’s morale and it will be in a much better position to bargain with the RJD [Rashtriya Janata Dal].”

He added: “After its victories in three states, the Congress no longer wants to be seen as a junior partner in the alliance. People’s perception of Congress has changed after the Assembly elections and the party wants to prove to the RJD that it still has support among the people of Bihar.”

Seat-sharing arguments

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress contested 12 seats and won two while the Rashtriya Janata Dal fought from 27 and won four.

The difference in 2019 is that new partners in the alliance such as Upendra Singh Kushwaha, Jitan Ram Manjhi and Mukesh Sahni have also to be accommodated. The Rashtriya Janata Dal believes it has sacrificed some of its seats to accommodate these partners and wants Congress to do so too.

Congress leaders believe that unlike 2014, they should be treated as equal partners in the alliance. “We should have been given 20 seats, and if we sacrifice some of our seats for partners, our number should come down to 15,” said the Congress leader. “But RJD leaders want to work on the 2014 formula, which is not acceptable to us.”

Party insiders indicate that the Congress will be happy to get 12 seats instead of the eight or 10 seats being promised by its alliance partner.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal leadership has said that the two parties were working on an arrangement agreeable to all. “Unnecessary speculations are being made about the alliance by the media,” said party vice-president Shivanand Tiwari. “Has the Election Commission announced the dates for the elections? So, why this hurry? There are no differences between the Congress and RJD leadership. We are still consulting each other and when the time is right, we will make the announcement.”

Other differences

As the two parties hammer out the details of the seat-sharing arrangement, differences between them have emerged in other areas.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal, for instance, is miffed with Congress for allowing tainted politicians to join the party. On January 26, Lovely Anand, the wife of jailed don-turned-politician and former MP Anand Mohan, joined the Congress. The following day, criminal-turned-politician Anant Singh joined a Congress road show in Patna that was held to drum up support for Rahul Gandhi’s February 3 rally. While Lovely is likely to get a Congress ticket from Sheohar, which she contested as a Samajwadi Party candidate in 2014, Singh is seeking a ticket from Munger. Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders fear these faces could give the Bharatiya Janata Part-led National Democratic Alliance a chance to target the alliance ahead of the General Elections.

The Congress’ new closeness to Jan Adhikar Party leader Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav has also not gone down well with Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav, who had said earlier that there was no place for him in the alliance. Pappu Yadav was once considered close to Tejashwi Yadav’s father, Lalu Yadav, but the two fell out in 2015 after which Pappu Yadav was suspended for anti-party activities. With Lalu Yadav in jail in connection with the fodder scam, Pappu Yadav’s opposition to Tejashwi Yadav taking over the party is well-known.

The Congress leadership, in turn, is unhappy with Tejashwi Yadav for meeting Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav on January 13, a day after they announced they were forming an alliance in Uttar Pradesh and were keeping the Congress out of it.

“These are all minor issues that can be sorted out through discussions,” said a Rashtriya Janata Dal leader. “Unlike Uttar Pradesh, Congress will have a say in the number of seats in Bihar. After all, Tejashwi [Yadav] and Rahul [Gandhi] have a much better chemistry and Tejashwi has openly endorsed Rahul for prime minister.