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regular-article-logo Thursday, 13 June 2024

Independent but Don shadow omnipresent: ‘Siwan ki beti’ seeks support from all

In the widely bipolar NDA vs INDIA bloc electoral battle, this Independent candidate has stirred a huge buzz in this constituency, bordering Uttar Pradesh, around 140km northwest of Patna

J.P. Yadav Siwan (Bihar) Published 24.05.24, 06:29 AM
Hena Shahab, Mohammad Shahabuddin’s widow and Independent candidate from Siwan, at an election meeting, in a picture shared on Twitter 

Hena Shahab, Mohammad Shahabuddin’s widow and Independent candidate from Siwan, at an election meeting, in a picture shared on Twitter  X

Early on a Thursday (May 16) morning, Hena Shahab, the Independent candidate from Siwan, drove out of her sprawling white bungalow on the fringes of the Muslim-dominated Naya Quilla area of the town, and hit the streets in the adjoining Hindu locality of Anand Nagar.

Hands folded, she walked through the narrow lanes, seeking support as her workers raised slogans.

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Son of a local priest, Arjun Pandey, with his forehead sm­eared heavily to highlight his identity and status, accompan­ied Shahab, to stress the optics. Hindu women who stepped out of their houses to see her were handed garlands made of fresh marigolds by Shahab’s supporters to greet her.

In the widely bipolar NDA vs INDIA bloc electoral battle, this Independent candidate has stirred a huge buzz in this constituency, bordering Uttar Pradesh, around 140km northwest of Patna. Gorakhpur, the seat of the Gorakhnath math headed by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, is just over 130km away.

“Hena Shahab is the frontrunner now. The JDU is in No. 2 and the RJD has gone down to the third position,” says middle-aged Bikram Singh, who runs a small pharmaceutical company in Siwan town.

Shahab is neither new nor an ordinary candidate. She was married to the late Mohammad Shahabuddin, the dreaded don whose writ ran large over this region for over a decade-and-a-half. He was to Siwan what Mukhtar Ansari, who died in jail this March, was to the Ghazipur-Mau region of Uttar Pradesh.

‘Shahab’, as Shahabuddin was popularly referred to, represented Siwan four times in a row from 1996, first as a Janata Dal nominee and then the RJD’s. His terror was such that no rival dared to put up his poster in town.

After his conviction in one of the multiple cases of kidnapping and murder, his wife was fielded by the RJD in 2009 but she lost badly to Independent Om Prakash Yadav. She lost all three elections since 2009 as an RJD candidate while Shahabuddin was in jail serving a life term.

Shahabuddin died in Tihar jail in 2021, succumbing to Covid-19 complications.

“This time, my well-wishers and supporters decided much before the declaration of the polls that I should contest as an Independent and so there was no question of going back on it,” Shahab told The Telegraph, on asked about reports that RJD chief Lalu Pr­asad was ready to give her the party symbol but she refused.

“Parties have their own limitations of caste equations. As an Independent, we have the support of those (voters) attached to parties and also our people (an oblique reference to the Muslim community). So it’s double-energy,” she said, confident of her victory.

By going Independent, Shahab is trying to revive her late husband’s winning formula: Muslims + upper castes + others.

Siwan was one of the hotbeds of the peasant movement led by the ultra-Left outfit CPI-ML (Liberation). Oppressed by their movements, the landed upper castes found protection from Don Shahabuddin and backed him despite their opposition to Lalu Prasad, who ruled Bihar at the time.

“Upper castes like me are gravitating towards Shahab because the JDU candidate here is not acceptable to us. She is the wife of former MLA Ramesh Kushwaha, who in the past was actively associated with the CPI-ML, a party that oppressed us,” said Gautam Singh of Sagra village under Nautan block.

The JDU, as part of the NDA, has fielded Vijaylakshmi Devi, wife of former MLA Kushwaha, who started his political journey with the ultra-Left outfit. He was the complainant against Shahabuddin in the March 1997 murder of JNU student leader Chandrasekhar in Siwan. The sitting JDU MP Kavita Singh, wife of gangster-turned-politician Ajay Singh, has been dropped — upsetting the Rajput/Thakur castes, who have a sizeable presence here.

The RJD has fielded former Bihar Speaker and Siwan’s sitting MLA, 82-year-old Awadh Bihari Choudhary (a Yadav), once close to Shahabuddin.

In the triangular fight, the RJD’s mainstay, the MY (Muslim-Yadav) base stands torn apart with Muslims, whose numbers are estimated to be over 3 lakh, appearing to be solidly behind Shahab.

Shahab’s poll managers’ stress on Hindutva optics is aimed at wooing the upper castes, aware of their liking for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his brand of politics.

Shahab has sidestepped queries from voters on what she thinks about Modi and his “polarising speeches”, saying she is not qualified to pass judgement on Modi, describing herself as “Siwan ki Beti”.

In spite of Shahabuddin’s image, some say he did do some good also: Siwan got roads, colleges, hospital and a sports stadium when he was MP.

“The MPs elected from here for the last two terms have done almost nothing. People are inclined this time to give (Hena) Shahab a chance,” says Savita Kumari of Anand Nagar.

Shahab may or may not be fourth-time lucky but by majorly splitting the Muslim voters, she can ensure the defeat of the Opposition alliance candidate.

Siwan votes on May 25

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