Patna: 17 January, the day the Congress is expected to announce a drastic organisational overhaul, is likely to hold surprises for the party workers and leaders alike. However, many among them already anticipate that the changes would be loaded with the ‘back to basics’ message from party vice president Rahul Gandhi. It would mean reconnecting with people and be visible at the grassroots level. Rahul may not have made public his plan of action yet, but the Congressmen in Bihar are out to show him that they are up to it and are not short of ideas. They have started hitting the streets with brooms and are busy cleaning up drains in several localities in Patna along with carrying other public contact programmes.
Hundreds of Congressmen armed with broomsticks, baskets, spades and other garbage-cleaning tools get into action on Sundays and clean garbage strewn around localities. While returning, they sprinkle bleaching power to contain the stench emanating from the garbage dumped along the road. “We will be carrying out this drive every Sunday in different localities of the state capital to keep Patna clean as also to make the state government realise their accountability towards the people,” said state Congress president Ashok Chaudhary. The party is planning to take its drive across the state soon. The locals are amused by the sudden spurt of activity from a party which all these years did little beyond holding dharnas, taking out prabhat pheris, submitting memoranda to officials and issuing press statements now and then. However, the party, chastened by the Delhi assembly poll experience and driven to desperation by its hopelessness on home turf, appear dead serious. It has been out of power in the state for close to three decades now and if it does not perform well in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the assembly elections in 2015, it would be as good as dead as a political outfit. The Congress has been performing abysmally in the recent years but the past few elections have proved particularly disastrous for the grand old party. In 2009, after its alliance with the RJD-LJP combine crashed, the Congress fielded its candidates in all 40 LS seats in Bihar, but it ended up winning only two seats—Sasaram, represented by Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, and Kishanganj, represented by Mohammad Asrarul Haque. It put up an even worse performance during the assembly polls of 2010, winning a miserable four seats out of the total 243 it contested. In the assembly elections of 2005 – there were two elections, one in February, and the other in November, as no party or alliance secured absolute majority – it had bagged 10 and nine seats respectively. The irony is hard to miss. This is the party which has ruled Bihar for the longest period – not in the continuous sense – since independence. Of the total 22 chief ministers Bihar have had so far, 17 have been from the Congress, indicating the popularity it once enjoyed among the voters. What is said to have led to the ‘slow death’ of the party in Bihar was the month-long 1989 Bhagalpur riots which left more than 1,000 people (around 900 of which were Muslims) killed and another 50,000 people displaced. The riots, considered the worst Hindu-Muslim riots in the country after Independence then, started in October 1989 and affected Bhagalpur city and 250 adjoining villages. The Congress government was widely blamed for mishandling the incident and failing to tackle it with firm hands. The result: the Muslims, who once were the traditional voters of the party, began drifting away and soon switched over to the Lalu Prasad’s party which came to power in March 1990. In power, Lalu did not allow any major riots to take place in the state. Although a few broke out, Lalu himself camped at the trouble site until the situation was brought under control. Of late, the Congress leadership has formally apologised to the Muslims for the Bhagalpur riots but the latter is yet to repose faith in the party. “The party can’t gain simply by paying lip service; it will have to show it really means business. The new generations (of Muslims) are no fools. They can’t be scared away simply by raising the fear of Narendra Modi,” commented a political expert wishing not to be quoted. According to him, the Muslims, of late, have been seen giving more weightage to development and governance than simply acting on sentiments, and also, they look slowly accepting Modi, though hesitatingly. Veteran journalist MJ Akbar threw more light on the ‘fast changing trend’ in the country in his speech on “the past and future of Hindu-Muslim relations” he delivered here recently as part of KN Sahay Memorial lecture when he said Narendra Modi’s inner voice had surfaced during his October rally at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan. “Crisis is the period when all sorts of preparations for speech turn to be of little help. During the rally, Modi spelt himself out when he appealed to the people of both the communities to together fight poverty, rather than fighting against each other,” Akbar said. Can the Congress’ belated realisation of its irrelevance in Bihar change its fortune for the better? There’s no clear answer, but there’s little doubt that reviving itself would be at least a decade-long effort.