New Delhi: Desperate to erase the shame of having won only nine seats in 2005, the Congress hopes its fortunes in Bihar will improve this time because it has fielded more Muslim candidates and also tried to expand the party`s social base.
Congress leaders said Muslim candidates were contesting in about 50 of 243 seats in the assembly elections that began Thursday.
Candidates from upper castes form the largest chunk of nominees, about 85. Candidates from Other Backward Classes (OBC) number over 60 while around 40 seats are contested by Dalits.
The leaders said the Congress attempt at "social engineering", however, did not entirely succeed as there was a reluctance to try new combinations and allow new faces.
"We put our foot down on several seats but did not press too hard for changes at many other places so as not to upset the state leadership," a Congress leader said on the condition of anonymity.
"If we had pressed harder, the onus of getting the candidates elected would have been on us," said the leader, explaining the Congress dynamics in Bihar, where the party has become an also ran in recent decades.
He said several members of the screening committee favoured giving more seats to OBCs and MBCs (Most Backward Castes) who form a sizable proportion of Bihar`s electorate.
Though estimates vary, a senior leader said the Congress was confident of winning at least 35 seats -- a four-fold increase from 2005.
A better finish would depend on how minorities and upper castes vote.
"The tally could be much more if there is a swing. It will be an achievement if the party emerges as a kingmaker," he said. The Congress is contesting all 243 seats on its own.
Congress spokesman Mohan Prakash said there was a realization among many that Bihar`s pride and development had suffered after the party got weaker in the state.
"There is a pro-Congress current. The new generation is hungry for development and it has a huge attraction for the Congress," Mohan Prakash said.
The party, whose most prominent youthful face nationally is Congress president Sonia Gandhi`s son and MP Rahul, has fielded 37 women candidates and some 45 youths below the age of 35.
Congress leaders admitted that the party`s prospects will be affected if there was a religious polarisation among voters following the judicial verdict over the Ayodhya land row.
The Congress preparations also suffered due to infighting in the state unit.
The party changed its state unit chief and general secretary in charge of Bihar in June following widespread complaints.
The party could not release its election manifesto in time. And it took more than expected time to declare its candidates.
"The entire scene shifted to Delhi for about 20 days during the process of selection of candidates. Very little campaign was done during the period," a party leader said.
Though the party has sought to raise the issue of "improper utlilisation" of central funds, its leaders said that convincing people was not easy because the track record of the Nitish Kumar government was better than that of Lalu Prasad, whose party ruled the state for 15 long years.
"We are telling people that anything will be better if you compare it with the misrule of the Lalu Prasad," former Bihar Congress chief Shakeel Ahmed said.