| Lalu’s ancestral home in Phulwaria, Gopalganj, with a old thatched roof granary. Picture by Nalin Verma |
It might sound ironical but the sudden surge in support for Lalu Prasad is directly proportional to Narendra Modi’s rise on the electoral scale. The more the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate grew in strength, the more “ammunition” the “wily” Yadav from Gopalganj got to fuel fear in the minds of Muslims.
An old-time social activist and noted Muslim face of Gopalganj, A.H. Siddiqui, was virtually stunned to see a sudden turnaround in Lalu’s fortunes. “Yeh samajh mein nahin aa raha ki Lalu kaise jivit ho gaya. Marta kya na karta. Muslim ke dimag mein Modi ka dar Lalu ko zinda kar diya (It is hard to understand how Lalu got a second life. The ones dying are ready to do anything. The fear in Muslims’ minds against Modi has resurrected Lalu),” said Siddiqui, a JD(U) sympathiser.
A grassroots leader, as equipped to whip up caste emotions as Modi is to drum up communal ones, the RJD boss has simply spiced up his speeches to play on Muslims’ fear of Modi. Sample this. “Modi aisa aadmi hai jisko dekh kar kasai bhi dar jayega (Modi is the man whose name strikes fear even in butchers’ minds),” Lalu repeats in his campaigns.
Lalu’s growing strength has by default added muscle to RJD-backed Congress candidate Jyoti’s campaign in Gopalganj, Lalu’s home ground 160km northwest of Patna.
The Congress had become virtually non-existent in Gopalganj after 1989. But Muslims’ desire to nail the BJP’s mascot combined with a stepped-up “drive” by Yadavs to get their icon (Lalu) back in the reckoning, seems to have breathed new life into Sonia Gandhi’s “moribund” outfit in the fray at Gopalganj, which has 2.75 lakh Muslims and an equal number of Yadavs spread across its six Assembly segments.
“Yeh, hamaray jeevan maran ka sawal hai. Hum Lalu (read Jyoti) ko hi vote dengein (It is the question of our life and death. I shall vote for Lalu only),” said Abdul Haq, a 60-year-old Muslim in Line Bazaar — a settlement between Meerganj and Phulwaria — Lalu’s home.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar expected Muslims voters’ undivided support after he broke from the BJP. An election meeting he addressed at Majha — 25km from Phulwaria and with a sizeable Muslim population — on May 6 drew barely 2,000 people, few of them Muslims. “It is not that we are opposed to Nitish. We will surely vote for Nitish in the Assembly elections. He has done in seven years what others, including Lalu, had not done in the last 60 years for Bihar,” A.H. Siddiqui, who attended the meeting, said, adding: “The Muslims’ paramount concern is to check Modi from becoming prime minister this poll season.”
The BJP has fielded a BSP-renegade-turned BJP candidate, Janak Chamar, as its candidate. As the BSP candidate fro Gopalganj in 2009, Janak had garnered a little over 1 lakh votes.
Apparently, Janak is yet to overcome the Brahmin wrath he earned for promoting the BSP’s non-Brahminical agenda in Gopalganj — which incidentally has over 2 lakh Brahmin voters.
The Brahmins have, by and large, been hostile to the RJD in Gopalganj. But a section of them seems to prefer Jyoti on the ground that she is a woman and a Congress nominee — belonging more to the “stock” of Nehru-Gandhi’s organisation than Yadav-dominated Lalu Prasad’s RJD.
Jyoti herself appeared surprised at her sudden rise in contention. Residents say Jyoti — a former MLA from Sahar in central Bihar’s Bhojpur district — had few takers when she first landed here for campaigning on April 5. After staying in a hotel for a week, she returned to Patna, disappointed. In fact few Congress or RJD workers even met her during her brief stay. However, with Modi intensifying his campaign and Lalu countering him by adding to Muslims’ fear, Jyoti “automatically” came into contention.
“When she visited again on April 22, a multitude of RJD cadre escorted her,” said a journalist belonging to an upper caste, adding: “Today, her campaign is as well-oiled as the BJP’s.” Modi is scheduled to address an election meeting in Gopalganj on May 9. But Lalu — free from Saran and Pataliputra where wife Rabri and daughter Misa were contesting — is to address a series of election meetings in Gopalganj ahead of polling date on May 12.
The more the Congress gained in contention, the weaker JD(U) nominee Anil Kumar, alias Sheru, became. Perhaps because of his reputation and image, Anil had started off as the front-runner. A postgraduate from Delhi University and a connoisseur of English classics, Anil has twice been RJD’s Rajya Sabha member. The JD(U) had won Gopalganj in 2009 and four of its six Assembly segments in 2010. Expectedly, Nitish began his campaign aggressively in Gopalganj, addressing a series of meetings in various parts.
But despite Nitish’s aggressive campaigning and his government’s stellar performance in Gopalganj and the rest of Bihar, the chief minister and his party have increasingly been reduced to the status of “spectators” in a battle being fought between the BJP and the RJD-backed Congress.
While BJP and Congress campaigners have turned aggressive, the JD(U) ones have turned either reluctant or silent. JD(U) MLAs Pappu Pandey and Manjit Singh have preferred to stay on the sidelines, keeping an eye on their respective caste-men, who are more divided between the BJP and the Congress. They reportedly fear that by persuading their caste-men in the prevailing scenario they might lose their goodwill, which might hurt their prospects in the Assembly polls.
Gopalganj votes on May 12