|Meira Kumar on the campaign trail at Navadih panchayat in the Sasaram constituency with daughter Devangana.
Picture by Amit Bhelari
Beneath the soft-demeanour and the ghunghat covering her head, lies a firm personality that has disciplined unruly members of the Lok Sabha and won elections from three states.
Meira Kumar, former diplomat and the daughter of Dalit icon Babu Jagjivan Ram, is aiming at a hat-trick of wins from Sasaram, 150km west of Patna, and is leaving no stone unturned to defeat her formidable opponents.
The Speaker of the present Lok Sabha — the first woman to hold the post — starts her day after discussing the schedule with her daughter Devangana, an artist by profession who is married to a Delhi restaurateur. Devangana accompanies her mother on every campaign, looking after the nitty-gritty and logistics.
Meira, 69, though harps less on her achievements and instead calls for votes in the name of her father.
“I know that my electoral victories are also a victory of the memory of my father,” says Meira. “I cannot even reach the heights he did.”
Jagjivan Ram, affectionately known as “Babuji”, was a Congressman with an uninterrupted record of 50 years in Parliament.
He held key ministerial portfolios — railways, agriculture, defence — in successive Congress governments before joining the Janata Party coalition in 1977 and becoming the deputy Prime Minister.
It is this legacy that Meira seeks to cash in on.
Meira, a five-term MP, has won the Lok Sabha election from three different states. She first became a Lok Sabha member from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh in 1985 after resigning from the Indian Foreign Service. In 1989, however, the people of Bijnor complained that Meira had neglected her constituency. She lost the seat, but moved on to win thrice consecutively from Karol Bagh in Delhi. Though she was swept aside by the BJP-Kargil wave of 1999, Meira was back in the Lok Sabha in 2004 from Sasaram, her father’s constituency. Sasaram voted her back in 2009 as well.
“The people of Rohtas district have immense respect for Jagjivan Babu and she, being his daughter, is a big plus point for Meira Kumar,” says Kumar Ranjan, a resident of Dharamshala locality in Sasaram town.
Before leaving for campaigning, Meira ensures that all important materials like pamphlets, public address systems and of course water and cold drinks are kept in her vehicle, an Innova.
Meira’s style of campaigning is different from other leaders — she prefers to move around the periphery of the village without moving into the interiors.
A route chart is prepared in advance, but Meira stops her car wherever she finds groups of people. She gets down to meet them, takes their blessing and moves ahead.
“Look at these people, they are not party workers, they are the real voters who want me to win again,” says Meira in her trademark reed-thin voice.
The people express their solidarity with her and assure her that she will again win the election. In 2009, Meira had defeated the BJP’s Muni Lal by a slender margin of around 42,000 votes. This time she has to face the BJP’s Chhedi Paswan, who has twice represented the constituency, and former IAS officer K.P. Ramaiah, the JD(U) candidate. Paswan is an old adversary who first defeated Meira in the 1989 election.
But Meira is banking on support from her core constituency. In Tilauthu block, 18km from Sasaram, Meira gets down from her car after seeing one such group of villagers. The moment they see her, they shout slogans in her support. Tilauthu in Rohtas district consists of people from the Kurmi and Paswan castes, communities which say they are steadfastly behind Jagjivan Ram’s daughter.
All this while, daughter Devangana is busy offering tips to her mother, in between checking that her mother, a pure vegetarian, has meals at the proper time. Lunch consists of a simple fare of roti, daal, green vegetables and curd.
“My daughter is helping me a lot, she keeps giving me tips and also to the voters. She is the person who is telling the voters how to cast their vote on the EVMs. In fact her husband (Amit Tyagi, who owns a restaurant chain called The Kathi’s in Delhi) is also helping me,” says Meira.
At Navadih panchayat, she meets students from Kanya Madhya Vidyalaya. One of them, Soni Kumari, complains that she is not getting proper education and starts crying. Meira wipes off her tears. “Don’t worry, I will look into the matter and ensure that you get proper education,” she says in her soft voice.
The girl breaks into a smile. The woman of the soft voice has made herself heard. But whether it is loud enough to get her back to the Lok Sabha is anybody’s guess.
Sasaram votes on April 10