Shifting sands

Print edition : May 24, 2019

Misa Bharati, RJD candidate from Patliputra, along with mother Rabri Devi and brother Tej Pratap Yadav, arriving to file her nomination papers for the election, in Patna on April 25. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Syed Faisal Ali, RJD’s candidate from Sheohar. A journalist from Delhi, he is described as the Kanhaiya Kumar of Sheohar. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

The compound in Bikram near Patna where Multani Baba ki mazaar and a temple coexist. Muslims and Hindus here, who have lived in peace for years, sneer at the concept of Hindu nationalism. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Caste calculations and the might of the mahagathbandhan outweigh the support for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the constituencies that go to the polls in the next phase.

As the hot April air added to the electoral heat in Patna, the caste factor seemed to have pipped rashtravaad (nationalism) and Modi mania in the race. Instead of gloating over Balakot, people in Bihar are now debating Rahul Gandhi’s or Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s chances of becoming Prime Minister, what the upcoming government holds for the poor, whether reservation will continue after the new government takes over, and whether caste will eventually decide the electoral outcome.

Roughly 40 kilometres outside Patna is Bikram village, which is part of the Patliputra Lok Sabha constituency. The sitting MP here is Ram Kirpal Yadav, once the right-hand man of Lalu Prasad. He joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 when Lalu Prasad fielded his daughter Misa Bharati from here on the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ticket. Ram Kirpal defeated Misa Bharati in that election; both are contesting against each other this time, too. In Bikram, the hot topics of debate are whether Ram Kirpal will get any Yadav votes this time and whether the communal utterances of various BJP leaders will damage his prospects in Patliputra, which has a sizeable Muslim population.

Bikram is a place where Hindus and Muslims have lived in peace for years. On the Bikram police station campus is situated a mazaar (tomb) of a holy man by the name of Multani Baba. Legend has it that he was a great freedom fighter whose head was severed in a fierce fight with the British. The severed head was apparently carried by his horse to the police station, where the policemen on duty buried it with due respect and built a mazaar. The police station exists there still. In due course, a faqir called Lal Baba Malang made the place near the mazaar his home. Nobody knows where he came from. He rebuilt the mazaar and also erected a temple in the same compound. The temple hosts the grand janmashtami festival every year with gusto. The annual urs is also celebrated in the same compound with equal fervour.

Lal Baba Malang looks after both the temple and the mazaar and leads a spartan life, tending to his goats in the basement of the temple. He does not interact with anyone; neither does anyone bother him with questions. Local people recall how once when the urs and the janmashtami fell on the same day, in an act of great bonhomie, the loudspeakers playing bhajan-kirtan were switched off for three hours for the urs and how both the celebrations were conducted peacefully.

People in Bikram sneer at the concept of Hindu rashtravaad, wondering whether rashtravaad should be associated with Hindu or Muslim identities at all. “Only those who are losing the election talk such nonsense,” said Nalini Kant, a right to information (RTI) activist in Bikram on being asked whether the aggressive Hindu rashtravaad peddled by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo elsewhere in the country had any takers here. According to him, if Ram Kirpal were to win, it would be on his own merit and not because of Modi. “Caste plays a very big role here. Issues that bother us here are unemployment and lack of development,” he said.

Divisive agenda

Manu Paswan, a farmer, said the BJP government had created the rich-poor, Hindu-Muslim divide in society. It had done no real work for the welfare of the poor, he said, and only the rich became richer. “Besides, if this government comes back, it will tamper with the reservation system,” he said. In his opinion, Misa Bharati had an advantage as the numerical strength of people supporting the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of the Congress and the RJD far outweighed the support for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Many like the farmer Babloo Kumar, the young restaurant owner Sunny and the small-shop owner Nagmani Sharma in Abgilla village were unanimous that the Modi government had failed to fulfil its promises about jobs and that it was high time Modi was replaced with a fresh face. The general feeling is that although Ram Kirpal was a good person, the Modi government’s failures would work to the advantage of Misa Bharati. “Modiji is playing the emotional card now. But how can we trust someone who ditched his own party seniors?” asked Paras Prasad, a cloth seller, referring to the missing pictures of A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani from the BJP’s campaign.

These feelings get echoed in Koilvar village of Arra Lok Sabha constituency where the BJP has fielded former Union Minister R.K. Singh, who joined the party after retiring as Union Home Secretary. R.K. Singh is pitted against the young Raju Yadav of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), which is part of the mahagathbandhan. Raju Yadav, though contesting for the first time, is reported to have substantial support thanks to his party’s base in the area and the strength of the Muslim-Yadav combine which supports the RJD, besides the Mahadalits and the most backward castes (MBCs).

“Raju Yadav is giving R.K. Singh a good fight. If R.K. Singh gets any votes, it will be on his own good image and not because of Modi because people here do not like his talk about Pulwama and Balakot. Asking for votes in the name of Army men is definitely wrong,” said Amirchand Chaudhary, who retired from the artillery regiment in Nashik in 2003 and has been a resident of Koilvar since then. According to him, the contest this time is tough, with R.K. Singh having a slight edge because of his image. Laxman Prasad Rai, who retired as registrar from the Bihar secretariat, feels the same but admits that Raju Yadav is a strong contender.

As the State enters an intense phase of polling, it is interesting to see the allies of the mahagathbandhan getting over their teething problems and presenting a united front. Nowhere else was this more visible than in Sheohar where the RJD sprang a surprise by fielding a prominent journalist from Delhi, Syed Faisal Ali, who has worked for the BBC, Arab News and Rashtriya Sahara. Faisal Ali is a complete outsider, and his candidature was opposed by Lalu Prasad’s elder son, Tej Pratap, who announced his own candidature for this seat. Eventually, he retracted from the race.

Local RJD workers were known to be upset with Faisal Ali’s nomination, but they too fell in line. This correspondent was witness to Congress workers defending Faisal Ali’s nomination animatedly and trying to convince RJD workers that it was not the time to fight as the leader, Lalu Prasad, had already taken the decision on the matter. “Our aim now should be to work together to defeat Modi, not to waste our time on such small issues,” said Rajendra Ram, a local Congress worker from Sheohar, who was seen pacifying agitated RJD workers.

Roshanara, head of the RJD’s women’s cell in Sheohar, told this correspondent that they would go all out to make Faisal Ali win. “There were reservations in the beginning, but that is a thing of the past. We are all campaigning together for him,” she said.

According to local reports, Faisal Ali, having started with a clean slate, stands a good chance because of the solid Muslim-Yadav vote strength, which is over four lakhs in this area. Besides, the votes of Mahadalits, MBCs and some upper castes upset with the BJP candidate are likely to come his way. The BJP has fielded the two-time MP Rama Devi from here. She is not very popular in the area for her arrogant ways and non-performance with respect to development. Faisal Ali, on the other hand, is trying to reach out to all sections of people and is promising all-round development: for example, one skill development centre and a degree college in each Assembly segment, bridges, roads, storage facilities for agricultural produce, a stadium and a medical college.

Taken aback by this unusual candidate, whose background has given it nothing to attack him with, the BJP is giving the contest a Hindu-Muslim colour, which, however, is not working much to its chagrin. Many people described Faisal Ali as the Kanhaiya Kumar of Sheohar, a dark horse. Faisal Ali himself sounds upbeat about his chances because of the “solid” support of his alliance partners. “I am winning this seat. The response is amazing,” he told this correspondent triumphantly, amidst a hectic round of campaigning.

The bonhomie seen in Sheohar is repeated in faraway Sitamarhi where the mahagathbandhan has fielded Arjun Rai of the RJD. Incidentally, Arjun Rai switched over from the Janata Dal (United) when Sharad Yadav walked out of the party. The enthusiastic campaigning by RJD, Congress and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party workers in Sitamarhi removed any doubts about the alliance not working on the ground in Bihar. Facing him is Sunil Kumar Pintu of the JD(U). Defending the choice of Arjun Rai over someone local, Vijay Rathore of the Congress explained: “When there is an alliance of different parties, people are expected to make sacrifices. For something big, these are small sacrifices.” He said the mahagathbandhan was working very well now on the ground and this was making the NDA nervous. “This is seen in their emotional bait in the Hindi belt. Now they are not talking about anything else but appealing to people’s emotions,” he said.

Star war

“But people in Bihar know better. Here caste loyalties work better than anything else,” said Sanjay Mishra at Fatuha in Patna Sahib Lok Sabha constituency. This means the traditional caste support of parties has now come into play: for instance, the upper castes and Banias root for the BJP, while Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits support the RJD-Congress. Of course, some cross-voting happens in all elections depending on the candidates’ image. Shatrughan Sinha, for example, who is the Congress candidate from Patna Sahib, having recently crossed over from the BJP, might get some upper-caste votes, especially Kayastha votes and damage the chances of the BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is also a Kayastha. Shatrughan Sinha won this seat in 2009 and 2014 on the BJP ticket, and it now remains to be seen how he fares as a Congress candidate, especially in a scenario when people are looking at the Congress party as a national alternative once again.

“The Congress is in a good position this time. It is a good national alternative. BJP ka bus naam hai, kaam nahi [the BJP has only name, no work to show],” said Vishwakarma Prasad, a Bihar Gramin Bank employee. According to many like him in Fatuha, Kumhrar and Anisabad in the Patna Sahib constituency, Ravi Shankar Prasad’s credentials as a good Law Minister and the BJP’s support base notwithstanding, he will have to put up a tough fight against Shatrughan Sinha, making the contest in Patna Sahib one to be keenly watched.

Purnima Tripathi has travelled in Patna, Arra, Sheohar, Sitamarhi, Pali, Bikram and Fatuha

for this story.