Leaders trade insults, play identity politics while unemployment rages in Bihar’s Seemanchal-Kosi region

Caste, identity politics and regional rifts dominate the campaign as parties strive for dominance, mainly in Muslim-dominated Kishanganj and Katihar.

Published : Apr 27, 2024 14:06 IST - 7 MINS READ

Pappu Yadav, who is contesting as an Independent from Purnia, will be one of the candidates to watch in this election. Here, at a roadshow in Purnia on April 24. 

Pappu Yadav, who is contesting as an Independent from Purnia, will be one of the candidates to watch in this election. Here, at a roadshow in Purnia on April 24.  | Photo Credit: Aftab Alam Siddiqui/ANI

The election campaign is frequently vitriolic in Bihar, where the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 39 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 and the Congress won 1. The Kosi-Seemanchal region in the north-eastern part of the State votes in the second and third phases: Seemanchal on April 26 and Kosi on May 7. While caste and jobs remain key issues, leaders frequently create ripples with polarising rhetoric and personal attacks on opponents.

Also Read | Bihar: Navigating change and stagnation

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been attacking the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) over dynastic politics while Home Minister Amit Shah has invoked Kashmir and Article 370 issues against the Congress. Nitish Kumar’s absence at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent rallies became fodder for the opposition, with RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav wondering why “Chacha” was avoiding Modi’s meetings. A few weeks earlier, Nitish Kumar made a faux pas at a joint rally with Modi in Nawada (which voted on April 19). Modi, he boasted, would be returned to power with more than 4,000 MPs. It was an embarrassing moment. (The Lok Sabha has 543 seats and the BJP’s stated aim is to cross the 400 mark.)

But if the 47.74 per cent voter turnout in the first phase on April 19, when Gaya, Aurangabad, Nawada, and Jamui voted, is any indication, the BJP’s aim of winning more than 400 seats looks in doubt.

Bihar constituency map.

Bihar constituency map.

Kishanganj, Katihar, Purnia, Bhagalpur, and Banka voted on April 26 in the second phase. Jhanjharpur, Supaul, Araria, Madhepura, and Khagaria vote in the third phase on May 7. The Mahagathbandhan comprises the RJD, the Congress, and the Vikaasheel Insan Party (VIP). With Nitish Kumar’s return, the NDA comprises the BJP, the Janata Dal (United), Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas), the Rashtriya Lok Morcha, and the Hindustani Awam Morcha.

Competitive identity politics

Competitive identity politics is evident in the speeches of political leaders in Katihar and Kishanganj in the Seemanchal region, where Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) won five seats in the 2020 Assembly election at the expense of the RJD and the Congress.

With a 67 per cent Muslim population, Kishanganj has elected a Muslim in 11 of the 12 Lok Sabha elections since 1957 when it was carved out as a constituency. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Md Jawed of the Congress won the seat, the only one the NDA was denied, standing against Mahmood Ashraf of the JD(U). The seat went to the Congress in 2009 and 2014, too. For the AIMIM, its Bihar chief Akhtarul Iman, who bagged nearly three lakh votes in 2019, is the nominee again against Jawed. The JD(U) nominee is Mujahid Alam.

The AIMIM has disrupted the constituency’s political equations. At present, the RJD holds four of the six Assembly segments in Kishanganj, with the Congress and the AIMIM holding the Amour and Kishanganj segments respectively. But those four RJD MLAs won as AIMIM candidates in the 2020 election and switched parties in June 2022.

Voters stand in queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Aurangabad on April 19. 

Voters stand in queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Aurangabad on April 19.  | Photo Credit: Aftab Alam Siddiqui/ANI

Iman has expressed disappointment over the INDIA bloc not including the AIMIM in it. After Modi’s claim that the Congress wanted to hand over resources to “infiltrators”, Owaisi took up cudgels, saying that Modi was insulting the people of Seemanchal. Kishanganj, bordering Nepal and close to the Bangladesh border, has been represented in the past by well-known leaders such as the BJP’s Shahnawaz Hussain in 1999 and the JD-RJD’s Taslimuddin in 1996, 1998, and 2004. M.J. Akbar won the seat for the Congress in 1989, and Syed Shahabuddin for the Janata Dal in 1991. In Bhagalpur, the contest is between the sitting JD(U) MP Ajay Mandal and the Congress’ three-term MLA Ajeet Sharma, who filed his nomination on the last day. In Banka, the RJD nominee is former Union Minister Jayprakash Yadav, who defeated the Modi wave to win the seat in 2014. The JD(U) has again fielded sitting MP Giridhari Yadav.

Tariq Anwar in Katihar

In Katihar, the Congress’ Tariq Anwar is the Mahagathbandhan candidate. A five-term MP from the seat, Anwar won it in 2014 but lost in 2019 to the JD(U)’s Dulal Chandra Goswami, who is contesting again. Goswami’s strength is his accessibility, with his humble background and the work done by Nitish Kumar’s government forming his political capital. Owaisi’s party has not fielded any candidate here, perhaps a relief for Anwar. Muslims account for over 41 per cent of voters in Katihar, Yadavs 11 per cent, non-Yadav OBCs nearly 30 per cent, and Vaishyas a little over 16 per cent.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav at a public meeting in Bhagalpur on April 20.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav at a public meeting in Bhagalpur on April 20.

Mallikarjun Kharge, Tejashwi Yadav, and VIP chief Mukesh Sahani have campaigned for Anwar, who first won Katihar in 1980 and is among the few prominent Muslim leaders in Bihar who have managed to stay relevant in the face of hard-line Hindutva politics. His prime contender earlier was the BJP’s Nikhil Chaudhary, who has won the seat thrice; the two leaders dominated the political discourse in Katihar for nearly four decades. Anwar, who walked out of the Congress in 1999 and returned to the fold in 2018, told Frontline that the NDA was facing anti-incumbency sentiments. “Issues of unemployment, price rise, corruption and poverty are resonating on the ground. The BJP is trying to polarise the electorate, but it is not working. Nitish Kumar has lost his credibility with his frequent switchovers,” he said.

In Purnia, the NDA candidate Santosh Kushwaha is locked in a fierce battle with the RJD’s Bima Bharti, who left the JD(U) a few months back. Also in the fray and fighting a battle for survival is former MP Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav, who merged his newly formed Jan Adhikar Party with the Congress on March 20 and was expecting to be fielded from Purnia. He decided to try his luck as an independent after the Congress was forced to give the Mahagathbandhan ticket to the RJD candidate. To what extent Pappu Yadav will split the anti-NDA votes is not clear at the moment.

Pappu Yadav first became an MLA in 1990, contesting as an independent. His name has always figured prominently in gang wars, and he was convicted by a lower court in 2008 for involvement in the murder of CPI(M) leader Ajit Sarkar, a four-term MLA from Purnia. Acquitted by the Patna High Court and released in 2013, he wants to reboot his political career. Pappu Yadav won the Madhepura Lok Sabha seat twice on a RJD ticket, won twice from Purnia, as an independent in 1999 and on a Samajwadi Party ticket in 1996. The RJD’s Taslimuddin was the last Muslim MP from Purnia, elected in 1989.

This newly married couple came out to vote in Jamui on April 19.

This newly married couple came out to vote in Jamui on April 19. | Photo Credit: ANI

In Madhepura, the contest is between sitting JD(U) MP Dinesh Chandra Yadav and three-term MLA Prof. Kumar Chandradeep Yadav of the RJD. The constituency has had a string of well-known politicians representing it in the Lok Sabha. Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal, a former Chief Minister and the architect of the Mandal Commission report, won it thrice: in 1967, 1968, and 1977.

The late Sharad Yadav of the JD(U) won the seat in 1991, 1996, 1999, and 2009. The 1999 election had seen a face-off between him and Lalu Prasad from this seat. In 2019, Sharad Yadav contested on a new symbol after revolting against Nitish Kumar’s decision to rejoin the NDA. He lost to Dinesh Chandra Yadav.

Also Read | ‘All this talk about dynasty is bunkum’: Shivanand Tiwari

Irrespective of party, Madhepura has been represented in the Lok Sabha by a Yadav since 1967. But this does not seem to have helped the community on the ground. Sukesh Yadav is from Almanagar in Madhepura and works as a taxi driver in Delhi. Talking to Frontline, he complained that leaders only make “tall promises but don’t do anything to better our lot. Had there been jobs in Madhepura, would my brothers and I work in Delhi?” Four of his five brothers are in Delhi, but they all go home to vote. He said that law and order and school infrastructure had improved after Nitish Kumar came to power in 2005, but that there were still no jobs. Confirming that a section of Yadavs had moved away from the RJD, he said only a few powerful Yadavs benefited from the party’s identity politics.

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