The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Self-respect card drives Laloo

Patna, Feb. 13: Stung by the dual attack from Ram Vilas Paswan and the NDA, the ruling party is fighting back. It is also playing what has been its trump card in the last two polls: self-respect.

The stakes could not be higher. As many as 55 of the 100-plus seats won by the Rashtriya Janata Dal last time come up for voting in the second phase. The major opponent here is clearly the Opposition alliance led by Nitish.

There is a palpable unease in the upper castes along the south bank of the Ganga, the belt along the Patna-Mokama-Munger road. A Bhumihar land owner who runs a large tea shop near Bakhtiyarpur minces no words. 'This jungle raj has lasted 15 years and we are still waiting for deliverance,' he says.

The mood is markedly different in a field where farm labourers toil in the sun. He did not get to vote last year as the day's wages mattered more. 'We mazdoors (labourers) are RJD voters,' is his assertion. The rate is flexible and there is no question of a minimum wage. The men get Rs 50 and the women Rs 20. The bitter pulses, locally called Raichi dal, that they cut will be divided into four shares of which they will get but one.

Loyalty is not based on any flow of material benefits to the poor. Living in a thatch hut along the road in Mokama, Patna district, Daman Mahto bemoans his family's plight. Kerosene now costs Rs 24 a litre, more than twice the fixed rate. There are ration cards and a ration shop but they rarely get much through that source.

Paswan's flag is in evidence in the Dalit bastis. But this is not a clear indicator of which way the votes will flow. Sanjay Paswan in Jamlapur, Munger district, admires the Union Minister. But he is opting for Laloo Prasad Yadav as the Lok Janshakti Party candidate is a family member of a Yadav bahubali, or muscleman, Krishna Yadav.

Paswan's fate and that of the Congress fluctuates depending on the seat and also on the candidate. Neither has the machinery nor the network and much hinges on local factors.

The splintering of votes at the constituency level is evident even with the forward castes. In stark contrast to a decade ago, Laloo Prasad eschews direct talk of wiping out the Bhurabal, an acronym for the key upper castes beginning, of course, with the Bhumihars.

His knowledge of detail and local-level contact building brings in unexpected payoffs. A Bhumihar landowner and former BJP MLA in Bakhtiyarpur proudly shows off his brick kiln. He has 10 bighas of land and his son, Anirudh Kumar, is the ruling party candidate.

Such candidates in a party of the backwards and Dalits indicate how a section of the upper strata are making peace with the old order.

The RJD's other hallmark is the presence of a formidable machine. Naresh Kumar in Lakhisarai is a former Lok Dal worker. He has overseen polls for 20 years. Paswan, he insists, is no threat at all 'and this will be his last state election'.

Down the road in Munger, the mood is tense. Former RJD minister Munazar Hussain is now the Janata Dal (United) candidate and exudes confidence. Further queering the pitch is a former Yadav strongman whose wife Rinki Devi is fighting as an Independent. A split in the 30,000-strong Yadav vote or a division of Muslims can hurt the RJD here.

The lights are out in the local RJD party office but Prof Khurshid Anwar is sure that, 'Paswan's NDA past will haunt him'.

It's a town in darkness with barely four hours of steady power a day. Firewood sells at Rs 3 a kilo, being more affordable than kerosene. The head of an Internet centre apologises for slow connectivity but points to his reliance on diesel generators. Gun shops advertise wares alongside a motorcycle outlet.

But there is no writing the Union railway minister off. His rally on February 11 evoked a huge response. His message was stark and, if it works, it will upset all his opponents' equations.

Laloo Prasad warned of a return of the feudal elements. He recounted his six spells in jail and assured his voters that it was their support that kept hope alive.

If they do not rally for his candidate, all will be lost and the old days will return. In subliminal terms, his is a rallying cause for the lower castes to unite and keep his rule intact.

It's a game being played on the margins. Again, the Janata Dal (United) needs to strongly rally the forwards and pray that Paswan raids Laloo's vote banks. It is a non-starter among both Dalits and Muslims, who together account for well over one in three voters. The loyal base of Kurmis and Koeris is not enough to pull it through.

All in all, fragmenting vote banks and shifting kaleidoscope. But two constants remain. The RJD is the largest force on the ground. A grasp of local detail and a rallying of marginal social ground may yet see it having the last laugh.

Despite the denials, Paswan's bite is hurting. But to convert his votes into seats will be easier said than done. Sources in Munger confirm that the Godhra compact disc has reached village interiors and left few eyes dry in Muslim mohallas or localities.

The NDA is a larger presence in the second phase. It is with an eye to this that Sonia was more strident in her criticism of the law and order situation in her speech in Madhubani district.

The 86 seats that poll in the second phase will decide whether or not Laloo Prasad and Rabri Devi will have reason to smile yet again. They feel the pinch due to the Paswan-Congress alliance. But they are very much in the race for the top.

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