| Laloo Prasad Yadav at an election meeting in Vaishali. Picture by Deepak Kumar
From a distance, one can spot at the village entrance the statue of Rana Pratap on horseback brandishing his sword and it instantly becomes apparent that we are in Rajputana land.
Rana Pratap is the icon of the lost glory of the Rajputs at Panhas village under Begusarai constituency. We sit at a cycle repairing shop talking to Anil Singh and Sukdeo Singh, both Rajputs. They will support Bhola babu, a former deputy Speaker in the Assembly and now a BJP candidate.
Sukdeo assures us that everyone is free to vote according to his will in this Rajput-dominated village while bystanders listen silently. Once the Rajput duo leaves, Bishundeo Rajak, a Dalit, confides in a hushed voice that the babusahebs do not allow them to enter the polling booth. One only hopes that the Election Commission this time will take care of Bishundeo’s problems.
Bhola babu, who has moved from the CPI to the Congress and then to the BJP, seems to have an edge over his main CPI rival Kamli Mahato. “We vote for Bhola Prasad Singh because he remains with us in our hour of need,” says Ragu Thakur, a barber, who earlier used to back the RJD. We back the person not the party, he insists.
At the Musahar Toli, adjacent to Panhas village, the poor inhabitants seem to be quite despondent. “We have voted for the CPI umpteen times, but Mahatoji, though a good person, never wins,” says Ramkishore Sada, a Musahar landless labourer.
The Musahars are the lowest among lowly Dalits, according to the prevailing social ladder.
Fulwanti Devi, a labourer from Musahar Toli, cannot, however, identify any of the contending parties or their poll symbols. Her low level of consciousness apart, the absence of election posters this time has made it even more difficult to recognise the different symbols.
The only demand that the poor Musahars can articulate is about the need for a community hall. “We have no place for accommodating the groom’s party during the marriage season,” implores Ram Kishore.
Asked why he changes parties so often, Bhola babu sounds philosophical. “I am just a shepherd and always follow my sheep,” he answers nonchalantly. He is, of course, no exception. In the neighbouring Bachwara constituency, Ramdeo Rai, who won as a BJP-supported Independent in February, is now a Congress candidate. Notwithstanding his sudden shift in allegiance, we come to know that Ramdeo is one among those few Congressmen expected to win handsomely.
We reach Begam Sarai, a Yadav village with a beautiful name. The queens of the yesteryears used to rest here during their journey, explains a local resident. The residents tell us that the community will vote overwhelmingly for Ramdeo. “When he was a minister, he built roads and brought electricity to the area,” argues Bhima Yadav.
The local jester, Arjun Yadav, smelling of liquor even in the late morning, however, dismisses all such suggestions of Ramdeo being a development-oriented leader.
“This is all nonsense, the real issue is who will become the chief minister' Laloo or Nitish. The Congress will get our votes because it is now with Laloo.”
Devniti Yadav, a CPI cadre, disgustingly complains about people still voting on caste basis. But he appears to have little support within his community. Both Ramdeo and his challenger, the CPI’s Awadesh Rai, are Yadavs in this constituency with a very high OBC population.
We move further towards Khagaria district, the gateway to the Kosi region of north-eastern Bihar, immortalised by eminent Bengali novelists Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhaya and Satinath Bhaduri as well as eminent Hindi writer Phaniswar Nath Renu.
On the way, we chance upon CPI-ML general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya addressing a gathering at Balia Bazar. The local CPI-ML candidate counts among the also-rans but many have flocked to hear Dipankar. The Election Commission should ban the use of helicopters in poll campaign, he argues. That would not only reduce infiltration of black money but also help to improve road conditions once top leaders are forced to travel by car, elaborates Dipankar.
At Balia, a bridge is coming up to link Begusarai to Munger and the last-time RJD victor, Srinarayan Yadav, is advertising it as his party’s achievement.
An Independent, Mumbai-based ship builder Jamshed Ashraff, spent a huge amount of cash last February to emerge as a close second. This time, he has been adopted as the Janata Dal (United) candidate. In the adjacent Matihani seat, a crime lord-turned-contractor, Bogo Singh, also an Independent, vanquished long-time CPI MLA Rajendra Rajan last time.
Bogo is back in the fray with an aim to take advantage of a possible hung Assembly.
Begusarai happens to be the lone industrial centre where the “new temples” of India came up in the public sector in the fifties and sixties in line with the Nehruvian vision.
The Hindustan Fertiliser Corporation is now closed and the Barauni Thermal Plant has also collapsed. The Barauni oil refinery is in poor shape dependent as it is on almost-exhausted Assam crude. The super-rich contractors and corrupt trade unionists, who made tens of millions looting the PSUs are, of course, still around and some of them like Upendra Singh in the Begusarai seat and Bogo Singh in Balia are prime poll contenders. The fertiliser township once brimmed with life but is now almost a ghost city.