Gautam Buddha’s last walk has become a Narendra Modi inroad. It must have been along these banks somewhere that Buddha crossed the Gandak bed and carried on to his mahaparinirvana at Kushinagar in 483 BC or thereabouts.
Having preached his last sermon at Vaishali, where part of his remains were later brought; having persuaded weeping Lichchhavi disciples to give up their pursuit at Kesaria, where a denuded stupa stands, a massive red-brick rotunda islanded in flat farmland; having brushed off his last pursuers with the gift of his begging bowl near Khajooria. Thereafter, he walked mostly alone and incognito until he crossed the river and came to rest in Kushinagar.
All along this 200-odd-kilometre run from Vaishali in north Bihar to the jagged fringes of east UP, we came upon again and again the Buddha legend in repose and a Modi newly rampant.
Irrespective of who wins these contests that closed on May 12 — all of these are gridlock battles, mind you, meshed in complex caste-creed loyalties — the spectre looming over the field is Narendra Modi’s.
He has come to acquire exclusive cross-country command of the discourse in a way neither national adversaries nor local competition can match. Few people even mention Rahul or Sonia Gandhi; Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad figure often, but only as counterpoints to Modi, where they can match him, where they’ll get rubbed.
It’s always Modi that is central, the insistent, ever present, confetti raining over this campaign: Modi, Modi, Modi, Abki Baar Modi Sarkar! That cry does not stop to echo.
How has a man from a far corner of the country come to grab superhero singularity in a state overcrowded with its own political stars? It’s a question that boggles even the Bihari chanting Modi’s name, not to speak of those opposing him.
Mid-afternoon, when the heat has beaten the town criers of the campaign indoors, we halt across a set of roadside shacks. There are men at the paan stall bearing BJP banners and RJD banners.
Vaishali is home seat to former Union rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, a man seldom troubled by his electoral prospects.
“Modi ke aane se kuchh pher badal ho sakta hai (There could be some changes with Modi’s arrival),” the RJD flag-bearer mutters wistfully, but Modi isn’t fighting this election, is he?
“It’s only Modi, who’s bothered who his nominee is? Modi is the one getting the vote or not getting it. Raghuvanshbabu is strong in Vaishali but even so he is facing the Modi chant,” his mate from the BJP joins in.
What’s it about Modi though in the heart of rural Bihar, how many people are even familiar with who or what he is? Who is Modi?
“Modi Modi hain, Narendra Modi, sab yahi kah raha hai, Modi! Modi! Chal gaya hai (Modi is Modi, Narendra Modi, everybody is saying Modi-Modi, it has caught on).”
There’s no real explanation coming from the Modi fan on why he is a Modi fan; he is in a state of blank rapture, such as many are across this stretch.
“Kuchh tou hai, logon ko lagta hai pata nahi kyon, lekin kuchh tou hai,” an elderly villager tells us further up the road in the Areraj bazaar. “TV par dekhe hain jyada log, aur khoob dekhe hain, kuchh tou hoga hi ki sab log itna naam jap raha hai.”
(There’s something about him I feel, I don’t know why, but there’s something. People have seen him on TV, and seen him a lot, there must be something why so many people are talking about him.)
The Modi echo chamber is still rattling away by the time we reach Padrauna in east UP. We’ve come past the burnished wheat fields of Champaran, cut through a flank of the Valmikinagar Tiger Reserve forest, and crossed the vast marshy borderlands of the Gandak basin.
The northwest of Bihar is in the throes of electoral skirmish. Prakash Jha of the JD(U) versus Raghunath Jha of the RJD versus Sanjay Jaiswal of the BJP in West Champaran. In the abutting Valmikinagar, it is Baidyanath Mahto of the JD(U) versus Purnmasi Ram of the Congress versus Satish Dubey of the BJP.
Call any contest and you risk your reputation, such as it may be. But the big X logged into each equation is the same; Narendra Modi.
“Modi ke naam par vote par gaya tou Bihar kaa sab puraan equation dhara rah jayega,” Vicky Singh, a prosperous Valmikinagar landowner tells me on his Rampurwa estate, from where the Nepal foothills appear faintly etched. “Kya hoga dekhne wala hoga.”
(If the vote happens in Modi’s name, all the traditional calculations of Bihar will go for a toss. What happens will be worth watching.)
Nandlal Prasad, one of the JD(U)’s poll managers in Valmikinagar, spills out what he apprehends may happen, rather unwittingly during a quick conversation.
“The Nitish government has done a lot of work, but what are we to do with a people gone crazy? Wherever you go people are chanting kamal chhap and Modi.”
It’s a pop rap that travels seamlessly across the border into UP.
At half past eight in the evening, junior Union home minister R.P.N. Singh is still out battling to retain his Kushinagar borough; his newscaster wife, Sonia, is reported canvassing in another far pocket.
Battle-weary cadres loll on the oblong lawns of the Singhs’ filigreed Padrauna manor. Cousin A.P.N. Singh meets us in a well-lit flank of the haveli.
“Such elections are tough,” he smiles, “Richie (aka RPN among friends) has been hard at it; he comes late and he is out there each day, we are all in it together.”
The BSP had given the minister a close run in 2009, leaving him a gasping winner on a 20,000-odd margin. But this time, it’s the BJP giving the chase. The Modi call is bouncing off the baroque white perimeter lines of the haveli: Abki baaaaar...!
RPN’s BJP challenger is Rajesh “Guddu” Singh, an Atal Bihari Vajpayee acolyte, but it doesn’t quite matter who he is; the cry is for Narendra Modi.
“Dabang aadmi hai,” a retailer on Padrauna’s central chowk tells us, “Badlaav mein koi dikkat nahin, hona chahiye, dekh lo Modi ek baar. (He is a strong man, Modi, there is no problem with change, it should happen, let’s see Modi one time).”
Padrauna by night is dimly lit and dour, a seamless continuum of the insufficiencies of the northwest Bihar ruralia — eroded roads, putrid villages, human and animal silhouettes shifting about the smoke-filled air, a darkness punctured here and there by low-voltage solar lighting.
This side and that of the Gandak exist dark-age constituencies that have begun to leap at a new messiah they call NaMo: “Kuchh to hai, kuchh to hoga (There’s something about him, something will happen).”
We head back a route Buddha never did retrace — from Kushinagar, across the Gandak into Champaran. It’s a relatively fast lane, running atop a new bridge inaugurated only last year and named after that most famous crosser of the Gandak: Gautam Buddha.
At the far end of the bridge we meet Surju Baitha, dhobi by caste — he said it as he spoke out his name — and self-appointed caretaker of the crossing. He had come towards us protesting photography was not allowed.
“Bada engineer bolan hain (The big engineer has decreed).” He seemed happy enough to pose for one, though.
We asked what he had heard about the elections from criss-crossers. Baitha said: “Modi Modi sunaa taani, hamhu deb hokre (I’m hearing Modi-Modi, I shall vote for him too).”
We asked if he knew who Modi was, and he made a cocksure grunt and said: “Yadav hain Modi, Yadav, hamni lokan san pichhda (Modi is a Yadav, a backward like us).”
Modi has arrived in these parts, even if he’s only riding semi-truth and semi-myth.