Bihar Elections: Is Congress the Weak Link in Mahagathbandhan?

According to CSDS’ survey, only 47 percent of ‘traditional Congress’ voters said they are voting for Mahagathbandhan

4 min read
Hindi Female

With Tejashwi Yadav giving the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) a run for its money in the Bihar Assembly elections, the pressure on his Mahagathbandhan allies to deliver has also increased.

A number of analysts have observed that the Congress, the largest constituent of the Mahagathbandhan after the Rashtriya Janata Dal, has become a weak link in the alliance.

This article will try to answer four questions:

  1. Why are analysts calling Congress the weak link?
  2. What does survey data and past election data say about the Congress?
  3. What is the cause of the Congress' weakness?
  4. Is there a counter to this explanation?

What Analysts Say About Congress

  • Veteran journalist Sankarshan Thakur writes in Telegraph: “RJD insiders also admit that they may have tactically erred in giving away as many as 70 Assembly seats to the Congress, an emaciated force in the state.”
  • He further quotes an RJD leader as having said, “We were offering the Congress much less but in order to keep the integrity of the alliance, we had to pay the price we did. We hope it does not cost us as heavily as some say.”
  • “He quickly added, in undisguised hope: ‘But if a mood for change sets in, as we think it has, the electorate can often makes winners of rank losers.’” Thakur further adds.
  • Archis Mohan, former political editor of Business Standard, observed on Twitter: "Congress party proving to be the weakest link in the MGB, say friends on the ground. Congress candidates want Tejashwi Yadav to campaign for them, who has understood the gravity of the situation and obliging them. Congress candidates not keen on their own party leaders."

Candidate Selection

One of the reasons cited by observers for calling Congress the weak link in the Mahagathbandhan is candidate selection.

  • Vishnu Narayan, founder of Bihar Mail, observed in a recent seminar, "In many places Congress candidates are weak and don't have much recall value among voters".
  • Political analyst Amitabh Tiwari said in a tweet, "I have maintained Congress given 15-20 seats more by RJD. Its weak link are that 37/70 contests are against BJP also giving majority tickets to upper caste which is NDA’s forte (sic)."
  • Another analyst, Shashi Shekhar Singh, wrote at the time of declaration of candidates: "Congress has given a walkover to the NDA in number of seats. Now, it depends on rebel candidates."

What Does the Data Say?

The pre-poll survey by Lokniti-CSDS said that only 47 percent of those who identified themselves as "traditional Congress voters" said they plan to vote for Mahagathbandhan.

In comparison, 83 percent of RJD voters said that they plan to vote for Mahagathbandhan, indicating a much better retention rate.

Let’s also look at past Assembly elections in which Congress contested in an alliance.

2015 Elections

  • In 2015, Congress had a slightly lower strike rate than its pre-poll allies RJD and JD(U). It won 27 out of 41 seats that it contested, a strike rate of 65.8 percent. In comparison, the JD(U)'s strike rate was 70.3 percent and RJD's was 79.2 percent.
  • In terms of votes secured in the seats contested, the Congress was at 39.5 percent, lower than JD(U) at 40.7 percent and RJD at 44.4 percent.

2005 October

  • This was a problem with the Congress even the last time it contested in alliance in an Assembly election in Bihar – in October 2005.
  • The Congress won 9 out of 51 seats, a strike rate of 17.6 percent as compared to 30.4 percent of its alliance partner RJD.
  • Congress got 29 percent votes in the seats it contested, as compared to 32.6 percent for the RJD.

2005 February

  • In February 2005, when it contested partly in alliance with RJD, Congress' strike rate was 11.9 percent and vote percentage in seats contested was 14.4 percent.
  • In comparison, RJD's strike rate was 34.9 percent and vote percentage in seats contested was 28.4 percent.

What Explains Congress' Weakness?

  • Congress began weakening in Bihar much before in the rest of the Hindi heartland. It lost power for the first time in 1967. During the 1970s, it lost a major chunk of the support of OBCs, who together account for close to 50 percent of the population of today’s Bihar. It was a bit less before the bifurcation. The Congress further weakened in two key phases.
  • The first of these phases was during the Emergency, during which Bihar emerged as the epicentre of anti-government protests led by Jayaprakash Narayan. This also led to the emergence of leaders like Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan.
  • The second was after the 1989 Mandal wave, after which it lost support of Dalits and OBCs and the parallel Ram Mandir surge during which it lost the support of both Upper Castes and Muslims.
  • The Congress never recovered from that and since then has remained a smaller player to the Janata Dal and its offshoots and also the BJP.
  • Congress' lacks a strong base among any of the communities in the state. The BJP has a strong base among Upper Castes, RJD among Yadavs and Muslims, JD(U) among Kurmis, EBCs and Mahadalits and LJP among Dusadh Dalits.
  • In comparison, Congress was an Upper Caste-dominated party whose support was from across all communities though OBC ditched it much before Upper Castes, Muslims and Dalits. Therefore, it has comparatively more support among these communities.
  • The Congress also lacks a strong organisation on the ground. This is not something that Congress alone can be blamed for. Barring the BJP and RJD, none of the other parties can claim to have a strong organisation across every corner of the state. Even the JD(U) doesn't have a comparable organisational strength.

Is There a Counter Argument to This?

There are a few things that could still go in Congress' favour.

  • There's an interesting possibility that was visible in the first phase of polling. Apparently upset with BJP's tacit support to the LJP against Nitish Kumar, a section of JD(U) voters is said to have backed the Congress and CPI-ML in the BJP quota seats in the first phase.
  • It remains to be seen whether this is restricted to a few seats or becomes a more common phenomenon.
  • This won't be surprising because in the end, it would be in the JD(U)'s interests as it would be useful if non-RJD, non-BJP parties are strengthened.
  • In the seats that Congress is contesting, the party would hope to get some Upper Caste and Dalit votes of its own, in addition to the transfer of RJD's core vote.
  • The calculation is that especially in contests against non-BJP NDA parties, Upper Caste voters may not mind voting for Congress.

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