When in doubt, go with your gut instincts.
The Congress ignored that wisdom at its own peril in Bihar, and just look at the results. The decline in the party -- which had an absolute majority in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha as late as January 1990 -- becomes painfully clear when you compare it to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP now has 55 seats in the Vidhan Sabha, while the Congress couldn't put up candidates in more than 55 constituencies.
And, I won't embarrass the party by citing the number it actually won, unable even to make it to a two-digit figure.
The story of the downfall was written almost one year ago.
Knowing that elections to the Bihar assembly were in the air, the party discussed a report on the state. The conclusion was absolutely unambiguous: Bihar contains more anti-Lalu Prasad Yadav than pro-Lalu Prasad Yadav voters. If the electoral battle were conducted on polarised lines, the Rashtriya Janata Dal stood a snowball's chance in hell of returning to power. The same fate would meet any party stupid enough to be seen as his ally.
The Congress's problem was that it could not afford to spurn Lalu openly. He has 24 members in the Lok Sabha. If that were added to the Left Front and the Samajwadi Party, the Congress would be at their mercy.
To avoid an open break while simultaneously building up its own shattered base in Bihar, the Congress hit upon using Ram Vilas Paswan. It was a simple arrangement: Paswan would fight the RJD everywhere but not oppose the Congress anywhere.
With Lalu officially committed to supporting the Congress, it seemed to be a win-win situation. Lalu would be cut to size, without the National Democratic Alliance coming to power in Patna.
The result belied all the Congress' calculations. Lalu slumped, but the Congress was so closely identified with him that it went down with the RJD. The NDA, which should have been wiped out going by the Lok Sabha polls held nine months earlier, increased its strength. The saving grace was Ram Vilas Paswan, whose 29 MLAs seemingly tipped the balance against the NDA.
Paswan, however, was in a fix. He wasn't the master of a party, but the temporary chief of men who had only one thing in common -- that they were all against Lalu. Many of them were Bhumihars, a caste irrevocably opposed to Lalu.
The rest is history.
Lalu pressed for President's rule, both to humiliate Paswan and to prevent Nitish Kumar from forming a ministry in Patna. With the Left Front behind Lalu, the Congress had no option but to go along. This had the unintended effect of tying the Congress even closer to the RJD in the minds of a Bihar electorate that was irrevocably opposed to the RJD boss and his family.
That does not, however, solve the Congress's real problem, which is to revive the party in states where it is moribund.
Uttar Pradesh is the country's largest state by far; the Congress is irrelevant there. Maharashtra is India's second-largest state; the Congress chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, lives at Sharad Pawar's mercy. West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh each send 42 MPs to the Lok Sabha; the Congress has been out of power in the first since 1977, and has just returned to power in the second after a decade in the wilderness. Tamil Nadu, with its 39 Lok Sabha seats, has not had a Congress chief minister since 1967. The BJP holds Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and a Biju Janata Dal-BJP coalition is into its second term in Orissa. Karnataka has a Congress chief minister, but his plight is even worse than his Maharashtra colleague, thanks to H D Deve Gowda.
And, the Congress is all set to lose Kerala in 2006.
Take a look at the map of India. Point out all those states that elect at least 20 MPs to the Lok Sabha. In how many of those states is the Congress in a position to form a government on its own?
Sonia Gandhi's response to that question was to seek out allies. But the Congress has yet to learn the first lesson of coalitions: that you cannot gain strength by weakening your allies. The Congress tried to be too clever by half, trying to regain lost ground by weakening Lalu.
In doing so, it convinced the anti-Lalu forces that salvation could come only through the NDA.
Today, the Congress has the worst of all worlds. It is stuck with allies it can neither spurn nor embrace. And in trying to build up its own strength by weakening allies, it has handed Bihar over to Nitish Kumar.
The new chief minister's residence will undoubtedly be flooded with bouquets. Shouldn't he send some of them to the woman who made it all possible, Sonia Gandhi?