Cover Story: General Election 2019

Riding the Nationalist Wave

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It’s Modi versus the rest in Bihar. Rahul Pandita travels across a state where Pulwama still reverberates

AFTER A SUICIDE BOMBER BLEW UP A BUS carrying CRPF personnel in Pulwama, Kashmir, in February, an angry crowd appeared in the form of a procession in the main town of Samastipur in Bihar. Anti-Pakistan slogans were raised; eyewitnesses say that many people got emotional, including a policeman outside the collector’s office, who hurled choicest abuses at Pakistan. Many among the crowd hailed Narendra Modi and beseeched him to take revenge. Similar impromptu processions were taken out in many other places in Bihar, as in rest of India.

The revenge came later in the form of the Balakot strikes. While questions are still being raised about its veracity, that did not seem to be an issue for most people one spoke to in Samastipur or elsewhere in Bihar. Even as elections are in progress in the state, one issue has dominated the narrative and seems to have tilted the balance in favour of Narendra Modi: Pulwama.

Maamla thoda gadbada gaya tha (the situation had become tricky),” said Prem Kumar Sahu, who ran a cigarette shop on the Samastipur-Hajipur border, referring to BJP’s electoral prospects in Bihar. “Magar Pulwama se sab phir gaya (but everything turned after Pulwama).” But does he believe in the Government’s version of Balakot? “Ekdum, yeh sirf Modiji hi kar sakte thhey (Absolutely, only Modi could have done this),” he said. According to Sahu, most people in his village believed that after Indira Gandhi, Modi is the strongest Prime Minister to lead India. “Mukhya mantri badalte rahein, lekin upar mazboot leader chahiye (Chief Ministers may keep changing, but a strong leader is needed at the top),” he said.

Even the BJP cadre is surprised at the response of the people. “Somehow the message has gone that only Modi can save this country from its enemies,” said a senior party functionary in Ujiarpur constituency.

This popular sentiment has turned elections in Bihar into Modi versus the Rest. Even Kanhaiya Kumar, CPI’s candidate from Begusarai, believed his fight is directly against Modi. “Speak to people here and ask them who they will vote for. Nobody is taking Giriraj Singh’s (BJP’s candidate) name. They’d say they will vote for Modi, or they will take my name,” he said. What is further creating this impression is that none of BJP’s alliance partners have bothered to campaign with gusto. “Did you notice how passive Nitish Kumar has become?” asked a journalist in Patna. “He also knows in his heart that in these elections only Modi’s currency is working.”

On April 25th, addressing a public rally in Darbhanga in north Bihar, Modi said that those who do not shout patriotic slogans must be defeated. He was making a dig at RJD’s candidate Abdul Bari Siddiqui who, while speaking to a TV channel, said that reciting Vande Mataram was against his belief. Sharing stage with Nitish Kumar, Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi, and Lok Janshakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan, Modi then asked the crowd to shout “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and “Vande Mataram”. As other leaders on the dais raised their hands, Nitish Kumar was visibly unsure of how he should respond. It was evident that Modi had stolen all thunder.

THE FIRST THING ONE becomes aware of in Patna is the noise. It comes mostly from relentless honking: thousands of thumbs pressing at the button, paying no attention to whether it is required or not. It is as if everyone in Patna has an enemy, invisible, who he is trying to bring down with darts of electronic clamour.

In June, 1974, though, when the socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan addressed a mammoth crowd in Gandhi Maidan here, he had a very formidable opponent in mind: Indira Gandhi. Calling for a sampoorna kranti (total revolution), Narayan asked her to step down. In response to the growing opposition against her, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency. It was revoked in 1977; that year the Congress was defeated badly in the elections, paving the way for the first-ever non-Congress Government at the Centre.

But in the same year, an event at a village not very far from Patna became pivotal in bringing her back to the throne in 1980 which she then held till her death in 1984.

Belchhi is situated along the Patna-Nalanda border. Today, a major road runs by it. But in 1977, it was inaccessible; there was no road, and the village was surrounded by swamps of mud and slush. In those days a petty landlord, Mahavir Mahato, held sway in the area. By caste a Kurmi (OBC), Mahato was a strongman and ran an armed gang. With his might he had usurped all gair majurwa (government land) and had also laid claim on land belonging to Muslim families who had chosen to shift to Pakistan during the Partition.

Mahato troubled everyone, including fellow Kurmis, but the Harijan (the term Dalit was not popular those days) families were always the worst victims of his strong-arm tactics.

The scene changed a bit when a Harijan girl from the village got married to a Harijan from another village who then decided to resist Mahato. His name was Singeshwar Paswan; locally, he was popularly known as Singirwa.

On the morning of May 23rd, the two groups exchanged fire, after which the village slipped into an eerie calm. A little afterwards, Janki Paswan, then 38, whose elder brother’s daughter had married Singirwa, noticed a flurry of activity at Mahavir Mahato’s house. “I could see a lot of water coming out of their drain, indicating the presence of several people inside,” he recalls. He also saw puris being fried in desi ghee in the courtyard of the house. He immediately alerted Singirwa and others.

“He (Singirwa) felt that Mahato and his men would come and hurl expletives at them and then go away,” recalls Janki Paswan. But still, Singirwa and his men hid inside a supporter’s house. They blocked the only door to the house with heavy objects.

After a while three men from Mahato’s gang appeared outside the house and said that Mahato wanted a compromise. They asked that one of their man be let inside so that a formal compromise could be signed between the two parties. After a little deliberation, Singirwa decided to let the man in.

As Singirwa and his men got busy in studying the draft agreement, Mahato’s gang approached the house from behind and one of them got through a window using a ladder and then made way for others. Soon Singirwa’s gang was outnumbered. Their hands were tied, and they were led outside.

In the maize fields, Mahato’s men shot Singirwa and 10 others and then tossed them in a fire they had created by burning wooden planks.

Janki Paswan watched this entire episode lying flat on the thatch roof of another house nearby. “I was terrified. I can still smell the burning flesh of those men,” he said. After the killings, Mahato and his men sat nearby and had sherbet, as a numb Janki Paswan still lay in hiding.

Even as elections are in progress in the state, one issue has dominated the narrative and seems to have tilted the balance in favour of Narendra Modi: Pulwama

OVER TWO MONTHS LATER, on August 13th, Indira Gandhi decided to visit Belchhi. Her cavalcade started from Patna airport in the morning. In between, she stopped at several places, including places where anger against the Congress party was very high.

About 15-20 kilometres from Belchhi, the cavalcade could not carry on any further because of mud and slush. So, she sat in a car pulled by a tractor. It had not even crossed a mile when it got stuck as well. But she was adamant. She began to walk towards Belchhi till an elephant called Moti came to her rescue.

By the time she reached Belchhi, evening had descended. The Harijan families were overwhelmed at her sight. With hands folded and tears in their eyes, they raised the slogan of: Indira tere abhao mein Harijan maare jaate hein (Indira, your absence is resulting in the killing of Harijans).

Indira Gandhi did not get down from the elephant, but it would be lowered in the village so that people could interact with her. Many people petitioned her, including the families of the accused in the case. “She tore those petitions into pieces,” recalls Indra Dev Prasad, a villager.

After a few years, because of Janki Paswan’s efforts, Mahato and one of his accomplices were hanged to death while 14 others got awarded life punishment.

Paswan donated a portion of his land so that a school could be opened in the village. But even after so many years, education remains a challenge. “I catch hold of children and take them to school which riles up the teacher there. He says: ‘Why are you getting them? I am here to just sign the attendance register’,” says Paswan.

For decades after Indira Gandhi’s visit, Paswan and many others remained Congress voters. “They have disappeared now,” he says. “It has been more than 15 years.”

In February this year, when Rahul Gandhi addressed a rally in Gandhi Maidan, it was a significant moment. It was the party’s first independent rally in Bihar in 28 years. “It was Rahul’s chance to play front-foot,” said a senior Bihar Congress leader. In 2014, in its alliance with the RJD, the Congress got 12 seats, out of which it won two. For 2019, according to the Congress leader, the party leadership asked for 14 seats. But Lalu Prasad Yadav did not relent. “Even from the prison he dictated terms,” said the leader. Ultimately, the Congress got only nine seats. “Even on those nine, the party could not field candidates of their own choice as Lalu wielded his influence even there,” he says.

A leader stood up and said that if Jamaat-e-Islami could be asked to convince Muslim voters to vote for Kanhaiya Kumar, that strategy could yield results

Much before Lalu became the messiah of the downtrodden in Bihar, a very significant voice rose from Samastipur in the form of Karpoori Thakur. He came from the barber community. In the early 1900s, his village, Pitaunjhia, now named Karpoori Gram after its most illustrious son, had about hundred households. The first man to matriculate from the village was a Rajput called Janak Singh—he later retired as ticket checker in the Railways. In 1934, two others passed. In 1940, Thakur was among the three who matriculated that year. There is a story about those times. After Thakur passed, his father took him to a local landlord’s house and told him about his son’s achievement. The landlord, as Thakur would recall later, looked at him and said: ‘Okay, now press my legs.’

Thakur would become an MLA in 1952 and Bihar’s first non- Congress chief minister in 1970.

Thakur’s son, Ram Nath Thakur, who is currently a Rajya Sabha member from JD(U), says that in those days, caste oppression was rampant. But, today, he feels it is futile to remember those days. “We are in a political space. So we cannot remember these incidents. Because we must ultimately ask for votes from the same people,” he said.

Ram Nath Thakur remembers that in those days the relationship between a voter and a leader and a party worker was very different. In 1966, he recalls his father sending him to an associate Malhar Das’ house. Das’ daughter had got married recently and Karpoori Thakur had been unable to attend. The father now wanted the son to go there and placate him. “When I reached his house, Malhar Das was putting his washing on a clothes line. The moment he saw me he began to abuse me in anger. I was taken aback,” he said. When Ram Nath Thakur told this to his father, he remembers him smiling and saying: Unko adhikar hai (he has the right). Later, Das would work relentlessly for Thakur again.

It is Thakur’s legacy that Lalu Prasad Yadav claimed to take forward when he took over Bihar in 1990.

The 90s belonged to Lalu. The Patna-based journalist, Ravi Narayan whose home is in Aurangabad, remembers a servant in his house who was a lower caste. His father and grandfather also worked as servants in the household earlier. “I had no understanding of caste till one day that man sat in front of me on a string cot and my grandfather saw it and kicked him in the rear,” he says.

It is for people like that poor servant that Lalu came as a saviour. Journalists remember how Lalu would campaign, taking a barber along with him, making the downtrodden touch his helicopter, offering them sattu, reinforcing that he was one of them and that if he could become chief minister, they could also become something. He took the fear out of their heads. “Earlier, my father would see a ticket checker in the train and hide. Laluji taught us to raise our head and look into the eye,” said Deepak Yadav, a teacher in Vaishali district’s Raghopur. “All lower castes came together for Lalu. He turned caste into a category,” said Narayan.

In January, one worker Suraj Yadav died in Odisha where he had gone to work in a jute mill. He was just 28. “We were just told that he felt unwell and died,” his mother Kalasi Yadav says

Today, the son of the man who served in Narayan’s house is not a servant. He went to school and is now working as a head postmaster somewhere in the state.

What happened later to Lalu is well-known. His tenure came to be known as the ‘jungle raj’ in Bihar. Also, he could no longer keep up with the aspirations of the Dalits. The widespread disenchantment of 15 years of RJD’s rule resulted in the victory of Nitish Kumar in alliance with the BJP.

By this time, say Congress old-timers, their party had got completely eclipsed. “From 1990 to 1995, we did not play opposition at all. There was not even a symbolic dharna against Lalu in Bihar,” says a senior Congress leader.

Gradually, a perception was created that the Congress is not even fit to be in opposition in Bihar.

In the 1995 Assembly elections, the Congress came third. In the 1998 Lok Sabha polls, the RJD and the Congress had an alliance. But the RJD offered alliance only on 8 seats, forcing Congress not to fight on 46 (in undivided Bihar). In 1999, Congress fought on 13 seats. “We got only 8, while on 5 there was a friendly fight,” says the leader.

In 2000, the Congress decided to go it alone, fighting on an anti-Lalu plank. It won 23 seats. “But by evening, we were again standing by Lalu,” the leader says.

By 2004, according to Congress insiders in Bihar, Lalu had virtually taken over the party. “Some leaders would go to Sonia Gandhi and tell her: ‘We have no chance of winning. Do as Laluji says’,” he said. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Lalu only gave Congress 4 seats, out of which they won 3.

In 2005, the alliance became a farce. Giving an example, a senior Congress leader recalls how in two adjoining constituencies, divided by a road, the Pradesh Congress Committee chief said in one that Lalu is a symbol of social justice and just across the road said that he is a symbol of corruption.

In 2009, Lalu struck again with four. The Congress broke the alliance and fought alone, winning two seats.

After 1995, said the Congress leader, the Brahmins stopped voting for the party. The Muslims had already gone. “Let me tell you one thing: when Brahmins come back, the Muslims will return to you too,” he said.

Recalling the February 3rd rally, the leader rued that they had worked hard for the rally and then Rahul Gandhi came and said Tejashwi Yadav is the future of Bihar. “Dukaan humne lagayi, mithai Tejashwi le gaya (We had set up shop, Tejashwi came and had the sweetmeat).”

On March 23rd, the first election rally of Rahul Gandhi in Bihar, Congress leader Poonam Paswan walked up to Rahul Gandhi and said that both Dalit candidates the party has fielded are from the same sub-caste and it would be better if he fielded her, a Paswan, from Hajipur against Ram Vilas Paswan’s brother. Sources say that on the stage itself Rahul Gandhi passed instructions that this be done. But later, it wasn’t.

For decades after Indira Gandhi’s visit, Janki Paswan and many others remained Congress voters. “They have disappeared now,” he says. “It has been more than 15 years”

Meanwhile, riding on the Pulwama wave, the BJP cadre was confident that they would win. “See, we have been able to communicate very clearly with voters,” says a senior functionary in the Ujiarpur constituency from where BJP’s state chief Nityanand Rai is in the fray. What message is that? “That Modi doesn’t need this country, this country needs Modi,” he said. He explained how the BJP’s electoral system works on ground: “The cadre of RSS is already out. They don’t even meet the candidate. The BJP’s vichaar parivar (ideological family), which includes RSS, ABVP, VHP, Bajrang Dal, fan out separately to influence voters. Think of BJP as a groom. The groom will do whatever he wants, the workers will make sure that things are taken care of.”

Helping them is an extensive streaming of propaganda on social media platforms and WhatsApp. “Our main force is WhatsApp,” he explained. He showed his smartphone which has a piece of information coming every two-three minutes. “Look at this,” he said, showing his phone screen. There is a message which says that Rahul Gandhi has donated a lot of money to mosques and churches in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Another message says that Jawaharlal Nehru was born to a Muslim woman. Another says that it is because of Modi that petrol costs Rs 77 there, whereas it costs Rs 177 in Pakistan.

But doesn’t the Congress also use these mediums for influencing voters? “The Congress’ problem is that they think they are very clever and make sarcastic videos that nobody understands here,” he says.

But beyond the world of memes and nationalism, the poor have nowhere to go. In Samastipur, the only jute mill in Bihar, established in 1926, was shut three years ago. It has left thousands of workers jobless. Many of them continue to live in the quarters of the mill where electricity and water connections have now been disconnected for 18 months. The building itself is in an extremely bad state. Open sewers make a living hell here. “Since 2010, we have received no gratuity from the mill,” says Harish Chander Sahni, one of the workers. In the absence of work, the workers have been forced to go to places like Kolkata and Odisha to work in jute mills there. But there they are forced to work as daily wagers and get no compensation in case of an accident.

Surinder Paswan, who had been working in the mill for 17 years, was recently forced to go and work in a jute mill in Kolkata where he broke his foot in an accident in March. In the absence of any treatment facility, he was forced to return and spend his own money on treatment. “I have ten mouths to feed; tell me what I should do?” he asked.

In January, one worker Suraj Yadav died in Odisha where he had gone to work in a jute mill. He was just 28. “We were just told that he felt unwell and died,” his mother Kalasi Yadav says. A few weeks ago, Suraj’s father-in-law came and took his daughter and one of their two kids along to his village. “He took only one child because he cannot feed more than two,” says Kalasi Yadav.

Shailendra Rai’s father and grandfather had also worked in the mill. He joined in 1988. After the mill shut down, he went to Kolkata to work. He had to return after his finger was severed and they refused to get him treated.

The entire lot of workers in the mill has decided to boycott elections this time. “We will lynch anyone who comes here, asking us for votes,” a lady said.

IN BEGUSARAI, THE comrades faced the ultimate challenge. They fielded Kanhaiya Kumar, but there was to be no consensus on him, resulting in the RJD fielding its candidate separately. In 2014, ex-comrade Bhola Singh, fighting on a BJP ticket, defeated RJD’s Tanweer Hassan. The CPI’s candidate, Rajendra Prasad, came third.

This time the BJP asked Giriraj Singh to fight elections from here. In 2014, Singh wanted a ticket from here, but was instead sent to Nawada. But in 2019, when Singh was asked to fight from Begusarai, he seemed reluctant. But after a meeting with party chief Amit Shah he relented.

In his campaign, Giriraj Singh has spoken mostly about Pulwama and the need to identify and eliminate enemies of the country. Did he feel that in Begusarai the fight was between Modi and Kanhaiya Kumar, like Kumar had claimed? Singh began to come up with an answer, but left it midway and walked away.

At GD College, a classful of students waited for Kanhaiya Kumar to appear. He had been out since morning, travelling from one place to another, seeking votes.

As time passed, it became clear that Kanhaiya wouldn’t be able to reach the college anytime soon. So, the students were addressed by other leaders, including CPI’s ex-MP, Shatrughan Prasad Singh.

Afterwards, Singh travelled to Bihat to preside over a meeting of local community leaders and the CPI cadre. “The Communist Party has a long history in Begusarai. The first comrade to win elections from here was Chandrashekhar in 1956. A newspaper called Searchlight published a headline that read: ‘First Red Star in Bihar Assembly’,” he recalled.

But gradually, the Communist legacy weaned off. Singh attributed it mainly to caste politics taking root in the state with Lalu’s ascension. “It was at our behest that Lalu arrested LK Advani in Samastipur during his Rath Yatra. But we could not take credit for it,” he said.

The biggest worry the CPI leaders had was that with RJD’s Tanweer Hassan contesting as well, the Muslim votes would go to him, thus making Kanhaiya Kumar’s victory difficult.

“From 1990 to 1995, we did not play opposition at all. There was not even a symbolic dharna against Lalu in Bihar,” says a senior Congress leader. Gradually, a perception was created that the Congress is not even fit to be in opposition in Bihar

In Bihat, the deliberations were already on by the time Singh reached. A leader stood up and said that if Jamaat-e-Islami could be asked to convince Muslim voters to vote for Kanhaiya Kumar, that strategy could yield results.

On his part, Kanhaiya Kumar addressed one meeting after another, speaking and connecting to people. At Kusmahat, he addressed a gathering of people and told them that he was one of them. “Tomorrow if one of you has to go to Delhi, does anyone even bother if you have got your train tickets or not,” he asked them. He said he will be available for them unlike those who come asking for votes and are then barely seen even in Patna. “Modi’s popularity was at its zenith in 2014 and then he got 31 per cent votes. This time it will only come down,” he said.

As he left that meeting for another, on the way, Kanhaiya spotted a few men waiting for him with garlands at Azadnagar Qasimpur. He stopped and got down to speak to them. He was garlanded and two men greeted him with “Lal Salaam.”

After he was gone, the men stopped on the road and spoke to each other. I asked them about the “leher” (wave) in their village. “Modi ji ki lehar hai (It is Modi wave),” they said. But hadn’t they, just minutes ago, garlanded Kanhaiya Kumar? “We will welcome anyone who comes here,” one said. But why would they vote for Modi? “Modi is fighting and dying for the country,” said Ramnand Rai.

Clearly, Pulwama was at play in Qasimpur as well.

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