| Independent candidate in the Vaishali Lok Sabha seat, Annu Shukla, campaigns at Devariya village in Muzaffarpur district. Picture by Nagendra Kumar Singh |
Shail Kumari of Chainpur village in Paroo Assembly segment of Vaishali constituency embraced a middle-aged woman who touched her feet and sought her blessings. After a pause the septuagenarian Shail said: “I have voted for your husband in the past, I will vote for you now.”
The woman’s reply was on expected lines. Shail, a widow and mother of two, was thrilled when the woman replied: “Humhu karz utaar deb (I’ll return the favour).” The one making the promises was Annu Shukla, wife of Vijay Kumar Shukla, alias Munna Shukla, jailed former JD(U) MLA from Lalganj.
Shail, who lost her husband in a road accident two decades ago, sees hope in Annu. “I’ll support you. You are a woman and you alone can understand a widow’s woes. I have not received the widow’s pension for months now. But you are kind enough. I’ve heard you help the poor with financial support to get their daughters married,” Shail said.
Annu, a JD(U) MLA from Lalganj, is contesting the Vaishali Lok Sabha seat as an Independent. Many JD(U) leaders tried to persuade her against filing her nomination but she turned them down. “When I announced I would fight from Vaishali, the party leadership should have considered it,” she said.
Undeterred by the scorching sun (the mercury was inching closer to 42°C), Annu kept talking to women at Chainpur village under a peepal tree in the local Vajjika dialect. A number of women of the Nonia community, a sub-caste of the Mallahs (fishermen), had gathered. Annu promised to fight for the “maan aur samman (honour)” of the community.
“But before I start fighting for your cause, you have to support me in the elections. My husband’s life is in danger. He has been put behind bars. He is innocent and has been implicated in false cases. Main apne suhag ki bheekh mang rahi hoon (I am begging you to protect my husband’s life),” she said.
As the 40-something Annu tries to convince Chainpur residents, around 83km northeast of Patna, an elderly man standing behind her interrupts her to say: “Ab aage bhi jaana hai (We have to visit other places too).” Getting the hint from the elderly person, who follows her like a shadow, Annu bids adieu to the residents but not before saying: “Sindoor ki laaj rakhiyega (Do keep my husband’s honour)”.
Annu’s cavalcade then heads for Dubarbanda village, a Yadav stronghold. There her vehicle stops a while. She wants to talk to some men and women taking a siesta under a roadside tree. Seeing the campaign vehicle, one of them, Kedar Nath Yadav, says: “Neta sirf vote maangne aate hain. Election ke baad bhul jate hain (leaders come only to seek votes. Once elections are over, they forget all).”
Getting a lukewarm response, the party workers distribute pamphlets in haste and leave for Madhopur Hazari village, mostly inhabited by Muslims. Annu steps down from her Vaishali rath (specially designed for the campaign) to address them. She is provided an armchair made of wood. She gulps down some water to beat the heat. “Rauwa sab ke madad mile ke chahin. Eehe kahe ke ba (I need your support. I came to say this only),” she tells the crowd. As the village has a sizeable Muslim population (1,400 each in two polling stations), Annu does not miss the opportunity to criticise the sitting MP. “Kab tab unka ke dhote rahi ke ba? (How long will you support him?) You have been doing so for the past 18 years. It’s time to get rid of him,” she requests humbly.
At a distance the public address system blares slogans like “Annu Shukla zindabad. Annu Shukla zindabad, zindabad, zindabad.” Sporting a printed floral cotton saree, branded slippers and handkerchief in hand to wipe her face, Annu says: “Hum aapan suhag ke bheekh mangat bani (I have been begging for my husband’s life).” Missing on her are the Ray-Ban dark shades, which suit her best.
She tells the Muslims that Lalu had come to power with her husband’s support. “Laluji came to power with our support. He will again come to power with my support only. Hence don’t waste your vote by extending support to Raghuvansh babu. I alone can improve your condition,” she tells them while appealing to them to press the button next to the patang (kite) symbol to get her elected. A few days ago, at a meeting in Devaria, she had said she was carrying a kafan (shroud) for herself. “If I lose the fight, cover my body with this shroud,” she is learnt to have told the gathering.
Annu’s husband, Munna, has been convicted in a murder case. He was shifted to Bhagalpur Central Jail a few days ago after he was spotted talking on a cellphone on the court premises, where he was being produced. Earlier, he was seen using the Internet and other facilities at a hospital ward he was admitted to for treatment.
At Bishunpur Saraiya, the crowd gets restive after her visit. A youngster says: “We have been waiting for you in this blistering heat for an hour. People don’t have time to wait for candidates for so long. Everybody is busy during election.” Annu tries to calm him down. “Lo bhaiya, maine maafi mang lee (Here brother, I apologise for the delay).
A section of the crowd is heard saying: “Had she been allotted a ticket by a recognised party, she would have won. After all, she has the will power to take on a seasoned politician like Raghuvansh babu.” Only two Bhumihar candidates have earlier won the election from this seat — late Digvijay Narayan Singh in 1997 when the constituency was first created and Usha Sinha in 1989. “Rest of the time, the constituency has been represented by Rajputs only. People still remember Shiv Sharan Singh, a Rajput leader, who was elected as MP from Vaishali in 1991. In the 1994 by-election, Lovely Anand, another Rajput, won the seat. Since 1996, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh has been representing the constituency. Munna had lost the 2009 polls by a slender margin. Annu tells the crowd with folded hands: “Mein phir election baad milungi (I will see you again after the elections” and leaves for another destination. It’s around 6 pm. But it’s still too early for relief from the heat for Annu.
• Vaishali votes today