|BJP’s Madhubani candidate Hukumdeo faces angered rural constituents. Picture by Sankarshan Thakur
The day Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, the robust elder you see in the picture wearing unstitched mourning sacraments was an 11-year-old living in Rangpur, now a Bangladeshi division abutting South Dinajpur. His father was a coal contractor and they lived well enough to possess, in those days, a radio set.
“It was a very cold day, I remember clearly, and the news flashed on the radio and I began to cry along with everyone else in my family. It was like all of us had been orphaned.”
Asharfi Kamti, 77, has a good memory for most things; his trick seems to be to link personal timelines with milestones of history. He retired as driver in the army 17 years and 21 days ago, he tells us, the year “Laluji went to jail in the chaara ghotala (fodder scam)”; he joined the army on September 1, 1963, “shortly after the China war”; his father, the coal contractor, returned from Rangpur only in 1965, the year “Lal Bahadur Shastri inaugurated the bridge across the Ganga in Mokama”.
Asharfi’s grandson died a few days ago of a long congenital illness, and he has emerged from a ritual dip in a nearby pond; he is clad in a single bolt of white and carries, as local custom dictates, a tender branch of bamboo, a hammer and the iron-head of a trowel. This bereavement he will probably recall as the year a general election was held and he flew in the face of his local member of Parliament.
“Bhagwaan bachaye aisaa-aisaa netwa sab se, dene ko phakka nahin, maange ko bora-bora vote (God save us from such politicians, they haven’t a handful to give but they want bagfuls of votes)!”
Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav had just passed by the Atarbel crossroads, canvassing support to retain the Madhubani Lok Sabha seat for the BJP.
Atarbel is a key highway “adda” and listening post. It is part of the Madhubani constituency, though it is actually located midway between Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga on the East-West four-lane corridor.
It can often be a good barometer of political winds. It used to be a Congress-Nehru Gandhi bastion, so fiercely loyal that the day Indira Gandhi was murdered by her guards in October 1984, residents ordered a plaster of Paris bust of the slain leader and had it installed overnight on a pedestal mid-street.
The Indira bust — it was a crudely hewn likeness — vanished somewhere during the years of the Congress party’s decline in Bihar; Atarbel has patronised a succession of suitor-heroes since: V.P. Singh, Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar. The arrival of the Narendra Modi bandwagon was only to be expected.
Hukumdeo had probably seen the 100-odd Asharfi clansmen huddled along the roadside and imagined a target-rich opportunity. He’d darted out the front seat of his jeep and approached them, hands folded, expecting to be greeted and feted.
|Retired army driver Asharfi Kamti, just after having booed off Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav, at the Atarbel crossroads in north Bihar. Picture by Sankarshan Thakur
Asharfi had lit into him. “Yahan kahaan aa rahen hain, dekhte nahi hum log shok mein hain? Aur waise bhi, aap paanch saal tak thhe kahan (Why are you headed this way, can’t you see we are in mourning? In any case, where had you been the past five years)?”
Hukumdeo and his entourage of half a dozen — a police guard included — had halted in their tracks, then piled right back into the jeep. “Be off!!” Asharfi had screamed at them, “We are better off without you, life goes on you know.”
A group of youngsters from Team Asharfi had chased after the departing jeep. The BJP leader was left stunned.
Hukumdeo is a veteran of many fences, many battles — a Lohiaite socialist who swam many left-of-centre streams since the late 1960s before becoming suddenly inspired by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and turning right-angle into the BJP in the late 1990s.
Today, he wears a China-net NaMo cap with barely disguised embarrassment. For an MP who is widely perceived by constituents as not having bothered with promises — or even visits — the NaMo calling card is probably the only currency he possesses.
Dilip Mallik, the block BJP chief, tangentially agrees Hukumdeo could be in trouble.
“Dekhiye is chunav mein candidate sirf Narendra Modi hai, vote Modi ke naam par padega, yahan candidate kaun hai itna matter nahin karega (Narendra Modi is the lone candidate in this election, votes will be cast for him, it does not matter who the local candidate is).”
But that saffron cap of his can cut both ways. The NaMo card will probably help Hukumdeo neutralise some of the personal burden of anti-incumbency he is lumbering under, but it will also consolidate the vote against the Modi cry more firmly.
The BJP’s chief rival is Abdul Bari Siddiqui of the RJD, himself a veteran propelled by the new momentum his boss Lalu Prasad has gained in this election. The message from controversial statements such as the one made by Giriraj Singh — “those who do not support Modi should go to Pakistan” — has sparked anger among Madhubani’s 23 per cent Muslims, who seem more determined than ever to vote and not vote wastefully.
“This country belongs to all kinds of people and everyone should have the independence to vote for who they wish,” Masarrat Alam, an 80-year-old from village Ketaunsa, told me. “The intolerant Modi discourse needs to be defeated and we shall do it. This country is not the fiefdom of one party and thinking.”
The Hukumdeo campaign seems to have chosen to brazen it out rather than distance itself from sectarian exhorts. “If Azam Khan and Shazia Ilmi can say what they want and get away, why not Giriraj Singh?” asks Mallik. “Why must we bear the burden of being secular all the time?”
The evidence on the ground isn’t convincing, though, that the Hukumdeo strategy, if it can be called that, is working terribly well. Asharfi Kamti’s temper and the relish his party or mourners seemed to derive from taunting Hukumdeo away is proof.
“Leader ho, kaam karo,” Asharfi said, stamping his bamboo staff into the ground, elated his boys had shouted the BJP incumbent away, “kaam nahin to chalte bano (If you are a leader, work; if you don’t work, be gone).”
Madhubani votes on April 30