What Ashoka Road and Akbar Road in Delhi are for BJP and Congress, Patna’s Beer Chand Patel Marg is for all political parties that matter in Bihar. It is the state’s rajnaitik dil or political heart.
The Congress has no place in this heart because Sadaquat Ashram, its headquarters with a view of river Ganga is 5km north – quite a distance in a congested city where squalor rules the roads.
The 20-acre ashram is part of Congress’ history in Bihar. Mahatma Gandhi had established it in 1921 on the land donated by his close associate Maulana Mazharul Haque.
The history has a post-1990 gloomy chapter that the Congress wants rewritten. Handling the script, for now, are two regional allies in its Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance (GA) – chief minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United and his predecessor Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal.
The headquarters of the JD-U is on the western flank of BCP Marg as one turns south from the Income-Tax roundabout, one of Patna’s busiest. Diagonally across the road, about 50 metres away, is the RJD headquarters almost adjoining that of the BJP.
The pre-poll GA has virtually erased the road between the RJD and JD-U headquarters. But there are too many streets and lanes between them and Sadaquat Ashram.
“Physical distance is no barrier when minds meet,” says Suman Kumar Mallik, Bihar PCC spokesperson.
The Congress, he adds, is the smallest of the three mismatched cogs in the GA wheel. But they will roll “smoothly together” to stop the BJP train from chugging into the Rajya Sabha via the 243-seat Bihar assembly.
The Congress is contesting 41 of these seats while JD-U and RJD are contesting 101 each.
Congress leaders say it is not a bad bargain for a party that, despite having ruled Bihar the longest, has no leaders of the stature of those of its allies and rivals. But they admit they have been allotted seats that are the toughest to win.
“There’s no point ignoring the reality. We can start rebuilding in Bihar if we get close to 50% of our seats,” Harku Jha, former Congress MLA, says.
The party is wary of its 2010 performance. It had won only four seats that year with 214 of its 243 candidates losing their deposits.
“We are campaigning for each other to ensure maximum seats and keep the communal forces in check,” says JD-U president Basishtha Narayan Singh.
But three chunks of voters have moved away from the Congress in the last three decades just as the Ganga – a stone’s throw from Sadaquat Ashram earlier – has shifted to an alignment 2 km north. These are the Muslims since the 1989 Bhagalpur riots, the backward castes who found a messiah in Lalu Prasad in the 1990s and the upper castes believed to have gone with BJP.
Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President spent his last days in Sadaquat Ashram. He was a Kayasth, an upper caste that is a potent voting force in Patna.
Therein lies the irony for the Congress.
(This appeared in Hindustan Times on 19 October 2015)