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Shahnawaz battles history & Lalu’s X-man

- BJP heavyweight faces burden of 1989 riots and RJD’s ‘unknown quantity’

The BJP’s high-profile Muslim face, Bhagalpur candidate Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, is acceptable to many, including the 18.2 per cent Muslim voters who see in him a “deeni bhai” (religious brother).

But the soft-spoken and suave Shahnawaz faces a situation that his party’s Darbhanga MP Kirti Azad’s father — veteran Congressman Bhagwat Jha Azad — had faced in 1989. At that time, a little-known Janata Dal candidate with an unusual name, Chun Chun Yadav, had trounced Bhagwat — a five-time Bhagalpur MP and a former Bihar chief minister — by a margin of about four lakh votes, virtually decimating his illustrious political career.

The voters, mainly from the minority community, had then punished Bhagwat and the Congress-led dispensation for the thousands who were butchered during the 1989 Bhagalpur riots. Bhagwat — now no more — never recovered from that loss. He retired from politics sometime in the 1990s. Chun Chun, Lalu Prasad’s X-factor, went on to win the seat for three terms. Bhagwat’s cricketer-son, Kirti, chose the BJP for his political career.

Like Bhagwat then, Shahnawaz today faces a little-known candidate with an equally unusual name. Lalu has sprung yet another X-man — Bulo Mandal — to take on the BJP heavyweight in Bhagalpur. Few in Bhagalpur, or even Patna, know his official name, Sailesh Kumar. He is referred to only as Bulo Mandal in the constituency, located around 270km east of Patna.

Bulo may not be a name as prominent as Shahnawaz, Narendra Modi, Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and others in the corridors of power in Patna. But his is the only name known to the Gangota caste — nearly three lakh in number and settled in the rough, raw and sandy diara of Manigachi sub-division across the Ganga.

And the names that are heard more often and seen invariably in newspapers and on TV are as alien to the Gangotas as Bulo Mandal and his Gangota caste men are to the media operating from offices in Patna, Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai.

Just as the 1989 riots had turned Muslims against the then Congress regime, the projection of Narendra Modi — whom Bhagalpur’s Muslims hold primarily responsible for the Gujarat riots of 2002 in which many Muslims lost their lives — as the prime ministerial candidate has turned the Muslims against the BJP.

“We have nothing against Shahnawaz, who is our deeni bhai (religious brother). But Allah will not pardon us if we vote for Narendra Modi — a decimator of the qaum (community). Our choice is Bulo Mandal,” said Mohammad Shahbaz (32), a young man at Kheeriband, a village with nearly 1,200 Muslim voters on the Bhagalpur-Jagdishpur stretch. Twenty villagers instantly seconded Shahbaz in chorus: “Jitega bahi jitega, Bulo Mandal jitega”.

Slogans in Bulo’s favour rent the air at Kheeriband too, 25km away in the southern part of the Ganga, on the outskirts of Bhagalpur town, complete with new malls, high-rises, modern apartments, hotels and restaurants, smart students around prestigious medical and engineering colleges, an agriculture university and Tilka Manjhi University.

Talk of a rigorous campaign and Shahnawaz is way ahead of his rivals — be it Bulo Mandal of the RJD or Abu Kaiser of the JD(U). Shahnawaz steps out of his office around 7am every morning and returns late in the night, around 1.30am. If he wins Bhagalpur, it will be his third straight victory from a seat that has seen the worst-ever rioting in Bihar. His three brothers and hundreds of community members keep his election office in the heart of Bhagalpur abuzz with the slogan “Jitega bhai jitega, Shahnawaz jitega (He’ll surely win brother, he’ll surely win, Shahnawaz will win).”

The urban settlements, full of businesses, corporate and educational institutions, too, have a sizeable population of voters working for Shahnawaz.

But while Bulo, too, is cheered in the urban areas, Shahnawaz has literally no one to cheer him in Raghopur, Shankarpur, Nanhkar, Bahatara and other ubiquitous diara villages to the north of the Ganga. Contrary to the Narendra Modi “wave” people in urban areas refer to, the phenomenon is missing in this sprawling diara area dominated by almost three lakh Gangotas. “Koi dusar neta ke na janai chhon, Bulo Mandal ke jaani chhon (We don’t know any leader other than Bulo Mandal. We know only Bulo Mandal),” said Shankar Mandal (50) at Raghopur. Hundreds of voters — men and women — The Telegraph spoke to in Raghopur, Shankarpur and Nanhkar spoke as one in Bulo’s favour. They were not ready to even discuss others in the fray.

Gangotas are a caste settled mainly in the Ganga diaras of Bhagalpur, Naugachia and Khagaria. Though belonging to the extremely backward classes (EBCs) — a new constituency created by chief minister Nitish Kumar — the Gangotas are in many ways similar to the Yadavs of Raghopur and Danapur diaras in Vaishali and Patna. Like the Yadavs, they bank on cattle and farming, in fact Gangotas have a tougher life than the Yadavs. They are settled in remote and inaccessible areas, far away from Patna and other important cities. The Gangotas were virtually cut off from the rest of the world till a 5km bridge came up on the Ganga from Bhagalpur in the south to Jahnavi Chowk in the north in 2000. The Gangotas credit Lalu Prasad for the bridge and roads that came up in the diara between 2000 to 2005 — the last leg of the Lalu-Rabri regime.

In spite of their numerical strength, no party had, so far, fielded a Gangota — a backward caste still mired in pre-market era problems — from Bhagalpur. A “pioneer” of caste politics, Lalu saw a chance in what others had ignored so far, fielding Bulo Mandal — a two-time RJD MLA from Bihpur — from Bhagalpur. Lalu’s gamble seems to be paying off.

Nitish Kumar drew Abu Kaiser from the RJD at the last hour and fielded him from Bhagalpur. Though Abu is trying hard, he is not as much at the centre of the discourse here as Shahnawaz and Bulo Mandal are.

Shahnawaz has his election office at a posh hotel in Tilka Manjhi roundabout in the heart of Bhagalpur city. His brothers and others from the community look after the party’s affairs here. Similarly, Bulo’s family members and other residents look after his office in nondescript Raghopur village. Most of them still do not talk the political lingo.

While Shahnawaz is banking on the business community and upper castes — constituting around 20 per cent of Bhagalpur’s electorate — and the “personal goodwill” of Muslims, who constitute about 18.2 per cent of the voters, Bulo is counting on the 20 per cent Gangotas, 12 per cent Yadavs and a large chunk of Muslims determined to stop Narendra Modi.

Bhagalpur is divided into six Assembly segments — Gopalpur and Bihpur dominated by the Gangotas in the north of the Ganga, and Pirpainti, Kahalgaon and Bhagalpur in the south, a mix of urban and rural population.

l Bhagalpur votes on April 24


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