Shopkeepers enjoy a chai break at New Market in Ranchi on Thursday. (Hardeep Singh)
Every morning Prem Prakash sits idly in front of his garment store at New Market Complex — one of the oldest shopping hubs in capital Ranchi housing over 250 shops — hoping against hope for a first customer to make bohni.
The general elections have taken a toll on his daily business and that of others. It has been more than a month now since fresh merchandise has stopped coming to the market because all goods carriers have been pressed into poll service.
There is still a week to go before Ranchi parliamentary constituency takes the test of democracy and over a month before the Lok Sabha results are declared. Until then, business is expected to be dull. So, taking the inevitable in their stride, these traders discuss politics and chew over it with as much relish as a Banarasi paan or headily scented tobacco tucked into the lower lip.
“Abhi toh koi rumal kharidne tak nahi aata, aisa lagta hai ki sab log chunaav ladh rahe hai. (No one comes to buy even a handkerchief, as if everybody is fighting the election),” Prakash is overheard telling fellow trader Dharmendra Gupta on Thursday.
“Business-fizzness ki baat chhodiye, yeh bataiye Ranchi mein kaun jeetega? Aap toh kafi nazar rakhte hain (Let business talks be, tell me who’ll be winning from Ranchi? You are a keen observer),” Gupta, another cloth merchant, replied.
Soon, a dozen other traders join the discussion and sooner a debate erupts.
Ranchi’s result is no foregone conclusion this time. The hot seat is witnessing a multi-cornerned battle with heavyweights like BJP veteran Ram Tahal Choudhary, JVM nominee and JSCA boss Amitabh Choudhary, Ajsu chief Sudesh Mahto and TMC’s caste card Bandhu Tirkey throwing down the gauntlet to sitting Congress MP Subodh Kant Sahay.
“I bet division of votes will help (Amitabh) Choudhary win even if the margin is slender. He is a good man. After M.S. Dhoni, he is the one who had brought Ranchi world-class pride,” Prakash launched his argument.
Garam chai and garam jalebi are ordered from the teashop of Balmukund Chourasia, who is a self-proclaimed psephologist, besides being an unauthorised vendor on the New Market premises for the past two decades.
“Haan jeet hi jayenge. Agar woh Ranchi mein World Cup ka match karwa dein tab toh PM post bhi pukka samjhiye. Ranchi ko woh swarg bana denge aur hum sabhi ko swargvasi (Sure, he will win. And, if next he brings a World Cup match to Ranchi, he will be PM. The city will be heaven and we shall all live happily ever after),” Chourasia said softly, but his innuendo was hard to miss.
In person, the tea man is a BJP votary, evident from the way he persuades others to vote for the party’s prime ministerial select Narendra Modi.
His provocation was promptly met with petulance. “So, where is your (Ram Tahal) Choudhary? He rarely connects with people. Had your BJP given the ticket to Amitabh Choudhary or C.P. Singh (BJP MLA from Ranchi), it could have bagged the seat,” Gupta said.
Some sworn BJP votaries such as leather trader Santosh Kumar Singh accepted that Ram Tahal was an “unpopular face” both among people and party workers. But, he insisted that the NaMo wave was quite strong in Ranchi and might help the BJP leader sail through choppy waters.
Opinion was divided. Garment trader Ravi Prasad Gupta insisted that a candidate’s personal profile must be taken into account while voting.
It is clinically obvious that most traders of this market complex have a leaning for BJP, albeit they debate neutrally. According to them, Ajsu candidate Sudesh Mahto may create problems for the BJP, but there is no guarantee that Mahto voters would support him en masse. “He is good at state level,” said Mohan Mahto, who run cosmetics business. He added, “He will only divide the Mahto vote bank.”
Anil Chaurasia, another trader pitched in, “Sahay will get a chunk of Muslim votes, but his extra inclination towards minority votes has annoyed others. He may also pay the price for the Coalgate scam.”
The New Market may not attract the elite class because of its squalor and reputation as rogues’ hangout after sundown, but it is a mini-Ranchi in itself. Several times in the past, builders have tried to coax the government to hand it over for a mall. The rent of shops was also increased four times when Arjun Munda was in power in 2012.
Despite odds, the traders here have survived. And they agree in unison that the current business slump is of little worry amidst this big exercise of democracy, which needs to be fair and peaceful.