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Caught between growth & the great divide

What’s the buzz? Tariq Anwar, who gave Katihar a modern station, is humming the growth tune again. However, since 1999 his self-praise has fallen on deaf ears. Telegraph picture

Union minister Tariq Anwar is trying to get over the “Nitish Kumar syndrome”.

When Nitish Kumar represented the now delimited Barh Lok Sabha seat, he started a dozen trains from Barh apart from a super-thermal plant and a few other multi-crore projects. Still he lost the 2004 elections. Even this time, the buzz from the ground is that Nitish is expected to perform poorly in the elections in spite of the development work he has carried out in the state since 2005.

Tariq Anwar won the Katihar parliamentary seat four times after 1980, but has been on a losing streak since 1999, having bit the dust in three consecutive elections. This, in spite of parading an impressive performance list of development he carried out in the constituency which he contested for the first time in 1977 despite originally hailing from Arwal district.

Anwar, 63, won from Katihar — around 350km north of Patna — in 1980 and 1984, and again in 1996 and 1998 — all as a Congress candidate.

Anwar found a place in the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra — he is a member of Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which he joined after leaving the Congress in the late nineties over the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin.

“Every time I lose because the BJP begins to search for votes in the name of religion. All sorts of wicked rumours are planted against me,” he says wearily after a hard day’s campaign.

Anwar is the only “Bihari” minister in the UPA-II government, holding the charge of agriculture and food processing. But for that he has to thank Maharashtra, particularly his party boss Sharad Pawar. This time, he hopes, the BJP will not be able to trigger the rumours which centre around him and the minority community. “There is also a strong anti-incumbency against the sitting MP,” he says.

Anwar’s supporters have coined a new slogan, “Is baar dil se, Tariq Anwar phir se (loosely translated, This time from the heart it is Tariq Anwar again).” It reminds the voters that it was Tariq Anwar who was instrumental in giving this region the country’s first modern station and new trains to bring in connectivity to this region.

Between 1980 and 1984, the railways had promised to build 100 modern stations, with all amenities for passengers. The Katihar station was among the first such to be built. Ever since he became a Union minister in the current regime, he has sought to establish the national fishery training institute here and also convinced the Amrapali group to establish a food processing unit at a cost of Rs 100 crore.

“Despite being out of the Katihar Lok Sabha seat for 15 years, he has been regularly coming here and has his home here also. He has never said or done anything which vitiates the atmosphere,” says Nawal Kishore, a retired government employee.

“Unfortunately, elections are never fought on issues they should be. They are fought on communal lines. Every time you will find the final lap of the election getting sharply divided on communal lines. It is an inbuilt process,” says Anwar Ali, a former pharmaceutical company employee who is now a full-fledged CPI(ML) activist. “Fortunately, the communal divide is limited to polling,” he added.

Being a part of the Seemanchal region, which has a sizeable population of Muslims, “soft Hindutva” is a driving force in the region. “I have no objections to Tariq Anwar being MP. But the two major communities are almost equally sized and it becomes more a match to show their dominance rather than a normal election process,” says Kalyan Sengupta, a 55-year-old employee of the railways.

Around 35 per cent of the electorate in Katihar is Muslim.

“We have voted for Tariq because we consider him a better candidate. We have no problems with local BJP leaders. In fact, when Jagbandhu Adhikari contested for the MLA seat, a section of Muslim votes used to go to him despite his party tag. But because of the presence of Narendra Modi as PM candidate, our voting is going to be aggressive. We find it difficult to accept Modi,” says Keum Ansari, a shopkeeper in Katihar.

With just a few days left for polling, the withdrawal of JD(U) candidate Akhtarul Iman from the contest in Kishanganj to avoid a split in the minority vote is being made an issue. “It’s not us. But the other parties who are communalising the atmosphere. Our PM candidate Narendra Modi did not utter a word on the issue. It has been Lalu Prasad and CM Nitish Kumar who have put the communal issue before the people,” says Ratan Kumar Sinha, a local youth BJP leader.

“Our candidate and sitting MP Nikhil Kumar Choudhary could not have become an MP for 15 years without development. We inherited from Tariq Anwar a town without proper roads. Tariq Saheb comes here to fight elections and then forgets it again for another five years,” he alleged.

Incidentally, Tariq Anwar has in the past had to face “vote katuwas” (vote cutters) making inroads in his vote bank. The victory margin of Nikhil Choudhary has been slim, less than 20,000 votes. This time it is the other way round. The JD(U) has fielded former local MLA Ram Prakash Mahto (a member of the Baniya caste who have been traditionally BJP voters) who threatens to make inroads in Choudhary’s vote bank. “But ultimately it is going to be another see-saw battle between Tariq Anwar and Choudhary. Mahto will be squeezed to a distant third,” says an NCP leader.

l Katihar votes on April 24