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Moment of truth for Bihar maverick

Patna, May 15: The man who may have effected a solo swing on the Bihar vote wears a crumpled lungi, rubber chappals and a 440-volt smile. He probably also wears, as you read this and as results of Election 2014 roll out, a sense of anxiety on whether his mid-campaign decision fetched the intended results or achieved the opposite.

When Akhtarul Iman vacated the Janata Dal (United) ticket from the Muslim-majority Kishanganj seat and pulled out in favour of the Congress’s Asrarul Haque last month, he said he had done it to prevent the “secular vote” from fracturing.

His stunning decision megaphoned a message to Bihar’s 17 per cent Muslims to consolidate behind the Congress-RJD alliance, hurting significantly the expectations and prospects of Nitish Kumar’s JD(U).

In the process, though, Iman may also have triggered a counter-consolidation that aided BJP candidates in the latter phases. Either way, or both, the Iman effect on the Bihar outcome could become the juicier of the post-election cuds to chew on.

Iman himself wouldn’t countenance even the hint that he could have touched off a self-defeating polarisation of the campaign. Giriraj Singh, the BJP candidate from Nawada who copyrighted some of this campaign’s most virulent calls, certainly believes so.

“What is Akhtarul Iman’s move to withdraw in favour of another Muslim candidate if not communal?” he told The Telegraph during an interview last month.

“Do they believe Muslims can keep their vote together and Hindus will not respond? The message has gone around. Iman’s was not an ordinary decision; it told you just how communal some forces can be and how they can attempt to impact elections. There will be a reply; it will show up on May 16.”

It’s a charge that leaves Iman uneasy, shifting in his wooden chair. “All I intended was to keep the non-BJP vote united. It is the BJP and the RSS that have communalised the atmosphere. People are free to make allegations, I have also been told that I have sold out to the Congress and Lalu Prasad, that I have made money; all sorts of things have been said. My conscience is clear, my circumstances are open to all.”

The disowned JD(U) non-candidate from Kishanganj —he quit the RJD and his Kocha Dhaman Assembly seat in order to be named Lok Sabha nominee by Nitish — runs a bare home in the legislators’ hostel in west Patna.

A stray dog sleeps by the entrance to the second-floor flat. In another corner of the landing, a goat is tethered, islanded in a serving of tree leaves and droppings. In the small hallway of the Iman camp residence lie three wooden cots on which a young man lies sleeping. When the tea arrives, halfway through our meeting, it comes in paper cups from the shack below, and along come some biscuits, brought loose in a cellophane bag.

“To the charge that I sold out, I have this to say: the Congress too has practised communal politics because all it has done for Muslims is to hand out lollipops once every while; it has used us like a vote bank.”

So how does that sit with his decision to withdraw in favour of the Congress candidate?

“I wanted him (Asrarul Haque) to withdraw in my favour but that did not work out, he is after all the sitting MP,” Iman argues. “And when I saw that was not possible, I took the decision upon myself.”

Even at the risk of annoying his newly embraced party, even at the risk of earning censure?

“I actually wanted to meet Nitishji and inform him of my decision, but he just did not find the time for me. Eventually I just had to go ahead.”

Does Iman realise, though, that his decision has left him stigmatised, a suspect in the eyes of the political community?

He resorts to a metaphor in his defence: “Ubalte paani mein aadmi ka chehra saaf dikhai nahin deta, yeh unmaad ka waqt hai, paani ka ufaan kam hone deejiye. Mera dil saaf hai.”

(Nobody can see their face in boiling water; this is a moment of surcharge, let the boil settle. My conscience is clear.)

What may float up when the boil settles, what the verdict of Bihar is, may not quite be what Iman says he intended.