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At 93, locked in battle with perception

He has twice undergone angioplasty, is dependent on insulin for the past four years, but 93-year-old Ram Sundar Das still treats elections as if it were his first.

Everyday, Das, defending his Hajipur seat and who is arguably the oldest candidate in these elections, travels between 85km and 100km on the road, meeting his constituents and convincing them to vote for him, and not his rivals, the chief challenger being another old warhorse, Ram Vilas Paswan of the LJP.

Das is undeterred by the scorching sun — the temperatures in Hajipur, about 40km north of Patna, touch 41 degrees Celsius — and hits the road with gusto in his airconditioned SUV.

Arey humse bhi jyada umarke sufi sant hai is desh mein jinki umra 100 varsh se bhi jyada hai. Isme kaunsi bari baat hai.. agar main 93 saal ka hoon.. (Look, there are sufis and saints who are more than 100 year old. What’s the big issue if I am 93 years old),” Das tells us when we ask him how he manages to continue in active politics even at this age.

Das, a lifelong socialist, first became a lawmaker in 1968 when he entered the Bihar Legislative Council and remained a member till 1977. In 1977, he contested and won the Sonepur seat in the Bihar Assembly. During the turmoil of the Janata Party years, Das benefited from Charan Singh’s attack on those considered close to Morarji Desai and became chief minister replacing Karpoori Thakur for about 10 months, between April 1979 and February 1980.

Das, who is suffering from sugar-related health problems for the last 35 years and is dependent on insulin, is working a gruelling schedule, realising that his challenge is stiff. He wakes up at 5am, hitting the road around 9 in the morning. His roadshow continues till about 7pm across the panchayats of Hajipur. After that he returns to his temporary party office in Hajipur and holds discussions with workers. He returns home in Patna’s Kankerbagh area around 10 in the night, sometimes even later.

“He is so devoted to campaigning that young politicians would feel ashamed to see him work,” says Ranjit Kumar, the Vaishali district general secretary of the JD(U).

We travelled with Das on his campaign trail last Saturday for about 40km. After every 10 minutes, he came out of his SUV to greet people. Hands folded, he asked people to vote for him. Das’s supporters and party workers expressed concern about his health since he was stepping out into the heat from AC environs every 10 minutes, but the MP was unfazed.

Sources said that for Das, winning this election has become a matter of prestige as he wouldn’t like to be defeated by Paswan. In 2009, Das won this seat by 35,000 votes.

But age, while it can win admiration, cannot necessarily win votes. The resentment among voters towards Das was palpable, the prime allegation being that he was seldom seen in the constituency in the past five years.

Jeet ke gaile bara to abhi aawat bara (After winning, now you have got time to visit),” asked Ramsundari Devi (62) at Chehra Kala village.

Ranjit Kumar, the JD(U) district general secretary, tried to give an explanation to us. “You tell me is it possible to visit all 250 panchayats under the constituency? How can Dasji visit all the places? If people have this kind of expectations from a sitting MP that he would visit all the panchayats, this is wrong,” he says.

Das is stoic as he listens to the jibes without answering. Maybe he too realises that his main battle is not against Paswan, but against perception.

Hajipur votes on May 7


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