The party in no hurry on making its choice in Bihar
The Congress’s four MLAs in the Bihar Assembly cast their votes for the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) government in the vote of confidence the latter won on Wednesday but, apparently, this gesture should not be over-interpreted. The Congress made it clear that it has not yet decided which party it will ally with in the eastern State for the 2014 Lok Sabha election — nor is it in a hurry to make a choice.
For the moment, the Congress, party sources said, is happy to savour the fact that over the next year, it not only has the Rashtriya Janata Dal supporting it from outside at the Centre, now the JD (U) will not be able to back the BJP, creating an arrangement similar to the one in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, where the party has arch rivals, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, on a string.
For the Congress, the parting of ways between the JD (U) and the BJP in Bihar could not have come at a better moment for it. It has not just underscored the divisions in its principal rival, the BJP, it has left the BJP-led NDA weaker: the principal Opposition party now has to content itself with just two major allies, the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal, both of which are ideologically aligned with it. It has taken the sheen off the anointment of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and brought into sharp relief the secular-communal divide in the country, making it an election issue at a moment when the Opposition would like the spotlight to remain on corruption and high prices. The Gujarat pogrom of 2002, which happened on Mr. Modi’s watch, is now centre stage again.
“We have supported the Nitish Kumar government in view of the BJP’s desire to pull it down ... to thwart communal forces,” Congress spokesperson P.C. Chacko, referring to the vote in the Bihar Assembly, told journalists, stressing, “It is not a prelude to a future alliance.”
Responding to questions on whether this meant the JD (U) would back the Congress at the Centre, Mr. Chacko said, “This is without any condition ... We do not expect anything in return. There is no quid pro quo. There is no deal.” As for a possible alliance with the JD (U), he said the party high command would take a decision at the appropriate time. “I am not going to predict what is going to happen tomorrow,” he added, clarifying that no one on behalf of the JD (U) had approached the Congress for support: it was a “unilateral” action on the part of the Congress.
The voting pattern in the Bihar Assembly also provided some indications about how the elections could pan out: a day after JD (U) and BJP workers clashed on the streets of Bihar, BJP MLAs did not vote against the Nitish government. Instead, they boycotted the vote of confidence, thus keeping the door for reconciliation open. The Congress that had been toying with the idea of boycotting the vote of confidence, too, clearly could not afford to be seen on the same side as its chief rival, nationally, the BJP.
The RJD, on the other hand, voted against the JD (U) government, making it clear — that would be its principal opponent. The lone LJP MLA backed the JD (U), a sure sign that the party was now hedging its bets on whether to stay with the RJD or join hands with the JD (U), depending on which party eventually went with the Congress.
Mr. Kumar, on his part, launched his parliamentary poll campaign against Mr. Modi, from the floor of the Assembly. In a skilfully crafted speech, he thanked the Congress and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for openly supporting his government and calling him secular.
The Congress, meanwhile, wants to see the political impact of the JD (U)-BJP break-up in Bihar. The party is clearly divided on the relative merits of the RJD and the JD (U). There is a vocal section in the Congress that feels it should not be seen rushing into talks with the JD (U): “Let us not forget that the JD (U) cohabited with the BJP for 17 years,” a party functionary said, pointing out, “Surely we need more than 17 years to decide whether to do business with the party.” This section also points out that the RJD has been with the Congress for nine years, five years inside the UPA, and now extending support from outside — and that RJD supremo Lalu Prasad has been Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s most loyal backer.
On the other hand, there is a section in the Congress that feels that the upper castes in Bihar are totally opposed to Mr. Prasad, but don’t feel that way about Mr. Kumar. To this, Mr. Prasad has been pointing out that his Rajput candidate convincingly defeated Mr. Kumar’s Bhumihar candidate in the recent Maharajganj by-election in the State.