Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has over the last few days met with a large swathe of the opposition Congress' legislators on Bihar. Spooked, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi met this morning in Delhi with her party's top leaders from Bihar to discuss the growing risk of them ditching the party to join the chief minister.
- A group of 19 Congress lawmakers allegedly want to exit party
- Their leaders met with Sonia Gandhi this morning in Delhi
- Alliance with Lalu Yadav is costing us, they warned her
A Congress legislator who phoned him about the damage done by floods in his constituency earned a visit to the area the very next day by Nitish Kumar. The chief minister's alacrity in meeting others from the Congress has not gone unnoticed by its Delhi leadership.
The Congress has 27 of Bihar's 243 state legislators or MLAs. They are headed by Ashok Choudhary, who was present at this morning's meeting in Delhi.
After the session, he claimed that its express purpose was to discuss how to fortify the party's alliance in Bihar with Lalu Yadav. "Our party is intact," he said. But the Congress in Bihar feels the association with Lalu Yadav, who is ensnared in a mix of corruption cases with his children, will be punitive when the next election is held -- and many party legislators want out.
Sources say that given that neither Mrs Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi are easily accessible to state leaders, the consult is a giveaway of the fault-lines that are strengthening. They point out that it was Sonia Gandhi and her team and not the Bihar branch that sought the meeting to ward off a crisis. "This talk of MLAs quitting is hypothetical and I can't comment on this," said senior Congress leader CP Joshi, who attended the meeting. Other sources said Sonia Gandhi tried to reassure her Bihar leaders that an alliance with politicians like Lalu Yadav is vital for the Congress's identity and strategy in fighting an "anti-secular BJP."
Till July, the Congress and Lalu Yadav were partners with Nitish Kumar in the Bihar government. But the chief minister, who had been signalling a growing chumminess with the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, suddenly called off the entire arrangement, pinning his decision on the corruption charges that he said Lalu Yadav and his children failed to credibly defend. The BJP, waiting in the wings, walked quickly onstage to become his new ally.
In the final stages of the alliance with Nitish Kumar dissembling, Ashok Choudhary travelled to Delhi to meet Rahul Gandhi, the Congress's No. 2 who was assigned to coax the chief minister out of hitching a ride with the BJP. He was kept waiting for three days. The move registered with the Bihar Congress as both disinterest and an insult.
Then earlier this month, the state branch said Rahul Gandhi should not attend a rally hosted by Lalu Yadav in Patna that combined several opposition parties in a protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Bihar wing warned that sharing a stage with Lalu Yadav would telegraph a tolerance of corruption. Senior Congress leaders also claim that Lalu Yadav often talks down to them while reminding them of his close ties with Sonia Gandhi.
The Congress MLAs point out privately that Nitish Kumar has not asked those of them who were ministers in his government -- like Ashok Choudhary -- to vacate the homes they were assigned while in power. They expect other deal-sweeteners. Though they could be disqualified as lawmakers if they defect, they are allegedly being assured that Nitish Kumar will field them as candidates and ensure their re-election.
The Congress was winded last month in Gujarat with a chunk of its legislators quitting the party, some of them to join the BJP. In Himachal Pradesh, virtually all its legislators have threatened not to run for election this year if the party does not make peace with Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who has made his differences with the Gandhis clear.
Sources at today's meeting said that while Sonia Gandhi's pep talk may help in delaying defections, a split in the party seems inevitable.