Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi is obviously not the most sought after campaigner in the Bihar Assembly elections, where his party is contesting 40 seats in a grand alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United). As a matter of fact, the two top Bihar leaders have conveyed it in very clear terms to the Congress high command that they would prefer Sonia Gandhi to campaign in the state. Their reluctance to draft Rahul as a key campaigner was evident when he skipped the Swabhiman Rally in Patna on 30 August and Nitish and Lalu gave a miss to his public meeting at Champaran on 19 September.
The official reason for Rahul being unable to make it to Patna was that he had a terrible toothache and the excuse given by Lalu and Nitish for being absent at the Champaran rally was that they were busy finalising tickets for the polls. Though Rahul's supporters insist that he would be addressing some meetings during the run-up to the polls, it is unlikely that he would be the star attraction also because of the reality that the Congress has been forced to contest mostly seats which the alliance considers to be bastions for its rivals — the BJP and its allies. In other words, the Congress has been meted out poor treatment by its two senior partners and allotted in most likelihood the losing seats. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that the grand old party could end up getting fewer seats than what its tally is in the current Assembly.
It is increasingly becoming obvious that the Congress vice president has been taken for a ride so far as the Bihar polls go. He was advised by a key aide to have an understanding with Nitish Kumar. The aide's primary motive was to acquire a Rajya Sabha seat for himself from the Bihar Chief Minister, since his term was running out next year. The counsel was in contrast to the views expressed by a number of Congressmen from Bihar that an alliance with Jitan Ram Manjhi and Lalu Prasad Yadav would have been definitely fruitful and thus would have led to Congress getting a respectable number of seats. By rejecting an alliance with Manjhi to link up with Nitish, the Congress not only allowed Manjhi and Mahadalits to drift towards the BJP, but also ensured that a section of upper castes that could have voted for it, hence gravitated in the NDA's direction. The unprocessed decision has resulted in the BJP enjoying the upper edge in the Bihar polls. Politically too, a tie-up with Nitish has led to a piquant situation for the Congress. In the unlikely event of Nitish winning Bihar, he would become the possible alternative to Narendra Modi in 2019 for the "secular forces", sidelining Rahul.
However, in a last minute bid to offset the loss of Dalit votes incurred due to Manjhi backing the NDA, the Congress organised a rally in Champaran to mark the 125th anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, as well as to honour the late Babu Jagjivan Ram, the two tallest Dalit leaders of free India. The rally was held about 12 kilometres from Bitharwa from where Mahatma Gandhi initiated his satyagrah for the oppressed people during the freedom struggle. But the Champaran mega show failed to take off due to two primary reasons. First of all, both Nitish and Lalu kept away. Then Lalu sent his son Tejashwi in his place as a clear message to the Congress vice-president on what the RJD thought about Rahul's political standing. Nitish was represented by K.C. Tyagi, a Rajya Sabha member and an old Lohiaite.
Secondly, in its over enthusiasm to woo the Dalits, the decision to honour both Dr Ambedkar and Babu Jagjivan Ram sent conflicting signals all around. The Congress had a troubled relationship with Dr Ambedkar and instead had decided to back Jagjivan Ram in the post Independence period. Both Jagjivan Ram and Ambedkar did not see eye to eye and the fact is that the Congress played an important role through Nasikrao Tirpude (later deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra in the late Seventies) in getting Ambedkar defeated in a poll in Nagpur in the mid Fifties.
Jagjivan Ram continued to be the Dalit face of the Congress until 1977, when he split the party and formed the Congress for Democracy (CFD), along with Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy in February 1977 to oppose Indira Gandhi and the Emergency. He could have been elevated as Prime Minister after the failure of Morarji Desai's government, by the Janata Party if it had not been for an episode involving his son, the late Suresh Ram in 1978-79. The Congress and the erstwhile Socialists led by Raj Narain were opposed to Jagjivan Ram taking over as PM and though politically at opposite ends, they unitedly exposed the Suresh Ram scandal. Ironically, the scandal was unearthed when K.C. Tyagi as a young activist along with Om Pal Singh brought out photos of Suresh Ram with a woman in New Delhi's Western Court and the pictures were published by Maneka Gandhi in Surya magazine, which had been launched by her. The political point was that a Dalit was prevented from becoming the PM by the Congress and the Socialists in the late Seventies.
Thus the signal which emanated from Champaran was that in the quest for power, Rahul's stage was shared by Jagjivan Ram's daughter and former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar with K.C. Tyagi, the man responsible for denying the Dalit leader the Prime Ministership of India.
A few days earlier on 8 September, the Congress Working Committee extended the tenure of party chief Sonia Gandhi by one year, thereby leading to speculation that the high command was not in any hurry to appoint Rahul Gandhi as the president. The political message emanating from this decision to allow Sonia Gandhi, president since the last 17 and a half years, to continue for one more year was to essentially insulate Rahul from the impending defeats in Bihar and possibly in the Assembly elections in Assam, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Kerala next year. If the Congress loses under Sonia Gandhi's leadership, Rahul could perhaps take over just ahead of the UP elections in 2017 with a clean slate and thus begin afresh a new political innings.
Till then the Congress has strategised to weaken the BJP as much as it can in various places even at the cost of strengthening and empowering the regional parties. The Congress desires that by the time the 2019 Parliamentary polls arrive, the BJP should go into it in a diminished state. There are though voices within the party which are of the opinion that the Congress should concentrate on revitalising itself rather than allowing regional parties to take its space.
In the meanwhile, the BJP has launched a fresh assault on Rahul Gandhi, who is out of the country, in the apprehension that he may embarrass Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his US visit. Sources in the Congress have described as "incorrect and in bad taste" the speculation that Rahul Gandhi was abroad to deal with some financial issues. As a consequence of this mudslinging, the Congress has accused the BJP of paranoia and asked it to concentrate on the governance of the country.