‘Muslims, please leave my rally, we don’t want your votes’: Meet this challenger to the BJP

“It’s good that Modiji has come to this battlefield. The ground for this Mahabharata is ready. People will tell him about me,” he said.

In Dehri, Joshi presents a unique political challenge. Express In Dehri, Joshi presents a unique political challenge. Express

When Narendra Modi touches down at the Suara airstrip in Rohtas Friday, Pradeep Joshi will be listening carefully. “It’s good that Modiji has come to this battlefield. The ground for this Mahabharata is ready. People will tell him about me,” he said.

Joshi is not a BJP leader or from the grand alliance or even an NDA rebel. In Dehri, Joshi presents a unique political challenge. An independent candidate, he is more saffron than anybody around — even local BJP leaders accuse him of communal politics.

A cloth merchant, Joshi burst into the scene in October 2005 by stunning former RJD minister Iliyas Hussain by 43,000 votes. In 2010, after he was convicted in a case, he propped his wife Jyoti Rashmi, who won. “In the last 10 years, there hasn’t been a contest here. We will win again,” said Joshi.

At each campaign, Joshi and his wife, who is contesting from Sasaram, begin by asking whether there are any Muslims in the audience. “If so, please leave because we don’t want Muslim votes,’’ they say. Joshi has his own political outfit, which was initially named Hindu Seva Dal and is now called Rashtriya Seva Dal.

The local BJP finds his politics “too extreme”. “He got votes only because he would emotionally blackmail people. Such slogans won’t work now,’’ said BJP district general secretary Ajay Kumar Singh. “It is the misfortune of this constituency that Joshi gets votes because he talks communal. He took advantage of a communal incident here in 2005 and won… We are seeking votes for vikas.”

It’s a triangular contest in Dehri. The NDA had allotted the seat to the RLSP, whose chief Upendra Kushwaha was elected to the Lok Sabha from here. The RSLP, in turn, has given the ticket to a young BJP worker and ward counsellor Jatendra Kumar, a.k.a. Rinku Soni, after he switched to Kushwaha’s party. The grand alliance has again fielded the RJD’s Hussain, a five-time MLA from here.

Soni, a 31-year-old gold trader, says he is working “above the Hindu-Muslim divide”. “People no longer like Joshi’s communal talk. This constituency has a large Kushwaha population who will vote for me, apart from BJP voters. I have been elected president of the Dehri Chamber of Commerce and won two ward polls. The fight is NDA versus grand alliance. Joshi isn’t in the race,” said Soni.

However, in a recorded speech blared from a loudspeaker fitted on a jeep, Soni’s focus is on Joshi. Soni calls Joshi “Natwar Lal”. “The wife is the legislator and the husband a contractor,’’ Soni says in the speech.

Soni can’t bank on the Kushwaha vote either. “He is a sonar (goldsmith) and the Kushwaha community wanted one among them to get a ticket. They aren’t very happy,’’ said Ganesh Singh, an RLSP supporter.

In fact, the business community here — traditionally BJP supporters — has called a meeting Friday to decide whom to vote for. “This time we think Hussain should win so that the focus returns to development,” said Mukesh Gupta, a shopkeeper.

If the NDA vote is divided between Joshi and Soni, Hussain will have a good chance, said Gupta. “It seems like 1990 again. For the first time after years, the backward castes are rallying behind the grand alliance,’’ he said. “In 2005, during a communal situation, a large section of people, including Yadavs, didn’t vote for the RJD’s Muslim candidate. Joshi took advantage of this and won. He kept on pushing his communal card.”

Joshi’s supporters aren’t far away. “I will vote for Joshi, he is with us in every situation,’’ said Manoj Kumar, who runs a tea stall.

Dasrath Singh, a farmer from a nearby Bhairav Bhiga village, differed: “The backward castes are one here. Hussain will win.’’ Avadesh Kumar Ram, who runs another tea stall nearby, is a Dalit and wants the grand alliance to win.

“We won’t even vote for Mayawati’s candidate,’’ he says. Aslam Qureshi, an RJD worker, said he was Joshi’s classmate in school. “Joshi organises chhat puja and conducts marriages of girls from downtrodden families. This is how he came into politics. But he won because he talks communal,” he said.

Qureshi said the largest chunk of votes in Dehri comes from the Yadav community, followed by Rajputs, Koeris and Kurmis. “There are 17 candidates, but this contest is between Hussain and Joshi,” said Qureshi.

Rajinder Ram, a villager from Ambedkar Nagar, wouldn’t agree. “Let’s wait,” he said. “It will be clear only after Modi comes. Let’s see what his impact will be.”