As Lalu Yadav’s rally, designed as a takedown of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approaches, the Congress in Bihar is reportedly divided about whether its top bosses, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, should fly down for the event in Patna on Sunday. On one hand, Lalu Yadav has notched up many brownie points as a long-time supporter of Sonia Gandhi; on the other, his children and he are a package deal with a cohort of corruption cases linked to their terms in public office, so a photo-op of the Gandhis with him on stage is not exactly dream PR at the moment. And the Congress, battered by many electoral losses, really needs good PR.So far, it is Mr Gandhi that is meant to represent the party’s top leadership in Patna, though the Bihar branch says it is awaiting confirmation. The public meeting is meant to parade top opposition leaders who are trying on for size a new synchronicity, the assumption being that only an ensemble cast has any chance of turning away the spotlight from PM in the next general election. But pulling in the same direction isn’t easy. Mayawati, a powerhouse from Uttar Pradesh, will not make it in person, choosing an MP to represent her at the event – she doesn’t want to share the stage with arch rival Akhilesh Yadav. Sharad Pawar, seen lately as a bit of a Trojan horse, who is siding secretly with the BJP while posing against it, has yet to reveal whether his Nationalist Congress Party can be added to Sunday’s roster.
And the Congress in Bihar is dithering about its own intent. The party will participate but “we don’t have confirmation on the name of the leaser- whether Sonia-ji or Rahul-ji will come,” said Ashok Choudhary, who heads the Congress in Bihar.
C P Joshi, who is assigned by the Congress to handle Bihar, said that he is “unaware” of any debate in the state about the event. “As soon as it is decided who will be attending the rally, we shall make an announcement,” he said to NDTV.
But sources in Bihar say there has been considerable discussion about whether either of the Gandhis should be at a political event at a time when Bihar is overcome with floods – over 300 people have died in the state in the last few weeks; Chief Minister Kumar and PM Modi, they predict, will rip into the opposition for making the time for political grandstanding instead of offering any assistance in the widespread crisis.
Early last month, Mr Kumar unfastened his alliance with the Congress and Lalu Yadav, effectively kicking them out of the government and remaining in office himself with the support of the BJP. He blamed his reshuffling of partners on Lalu Yadav’s corruption cases – in particular, charges of venality against his son, Tejashwi Yadav, who was the Deputy Chief Minister. The Congress assigned Mr Gandhi to change Mr Kumar’s mind, but came up short.
In 2013, it was Mr Gandhi who appeared to target Mr Yadav, then freshly convicted of corruption. In a dramatic and rare assertion, the Congress Vice-President tore up an ordinance that was intended to allow Mr Yadav to remain a parliamentarian. The executive order had been cleared by the cabinet of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to circumvent a Supreme Court rule that bans convicted politicians from holding public office. It’s bad optics, some in the Bihar Congress feel, to publicly showcase Mr Gandhi, expected to take over from his mother as Congress chief next month, in close proximity with Mr Yadav.
There is a precedent here – two years ago, Lalu Yadav enveloped Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in a big hug at the oath-taking ceremony of Nitish Kumar. Mr Kejriwal, whose party’s main ideological commitment is against corruption, painstakingly explained later that he had been caught off-guard and that the widely-featured photo-op did not signal a condoning of corruption-tainted leaders.
While a repeat of that, with Mr Gandhi marking the spot where Mr Kejriwal once stood, would be embarrassing, Congress leaders are aware that their party is committed to anchoring the league of anti-BJP parties and cannot be seen as dubious about an event that is meant to demonstrate the strength and staying power of a new political experiment, whose prototype – Mr Kumar’s famous maha-gathbandhan or Grand Alliance with Lalu Yadav and the Congress – has already flamed out.