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In village of midday meal deaths, Nitish retains support
There is one thing common to Raju Sah, Akhilanand Mishra, Baliram Mishra, Balli Mahto, Shankar Thakur and Surendra Rai. They lost a child each in the July 2013 midday meal school tragedy, in which 23 died after eating food contaminated by poison. That grief has united this village, dismantling the caste factor ahead of the May 7 vote.
The sitting MP from the seat that includes Gandaman, Maharajganj, is the RJD’s Prabhunath Singh. Standing in front of the Gandaman community hall from where the local primary school ran, the parents say they are angry with him.
“Nitish Kumar and the BJP are at least talking about Gandaman but the RJD MP has never discussed it except coming here after the tragedy,” says Sah. His six-year-old son Krishna Kumar was among those who died; his daughter Laxmi, 9, had skipped the school meal that day. Now she goes to the village middle school but doesn’t eat there.
Nitish and the JD(U) have the backing of the other parents too, though Prabhunath Singh may still win on the basis of the constituency’s caste combination of Muslim, Yadav and Rajput votes. While they have heard of the “Narendra Modi wave”, Gandaman villagers say it’s only through newspapers.
The BJP’s candidate is Janardhan Singh Sigriwal while the JD(U) has fielded Dhumal Singh. All three have campaigned nearby but none came to visit the aggrieved families. The village has about 1,200 Mahadalit votes, as well as EBC, Yadav and Gonda tribal voters.
Satendra Ram, whose son Rahul was cremated in front of the old school building, says: “Political parties cannot understand our grief. The investigation is not going anywhere and we don’t know if there was a conspiracy to kill our children.” Says Sah: “It took the death of our children to get this village on Bihar’s map. Now we have a primary school, an aanganwadi centre, an additional primary healthcare centre and an upcoming high school and approach roads.” Even the community hall is being renovated as part of Nitish’s plan to make it a model village.
Surendra Rai sees this as a sign that the chief minister cares, though he wishes Nitish had also met them. “He has given 29 tubewells to the village and Rs 2 lakh compensation to each victim’s family. Our support is for him,” says Rai, whose daughter Mamata died in the tragedy.
Akhilanand Mishra is harsher. “Maybe Nitish can’t meet us in the eye because he couldn’t keep the promise of a speedy trial. Lalu doesn’t bother about us because he does not have much votes here.”
Villagers’ wish for their new MP is that he pushes for a structure to cover the plaque where the names of their dead are inscribed. “Our children’s names can wither in the rain and sun,” says Raju.
In Muzaffarpur, his core voters show signs of drifting to BJP
Roti palatna hai, says Sahni after Sahni in Muzaffarpur district. They claim the Mahadalits have joined them. And they sometimes extend the allegory, intended for the government at Delhi, to include Nitish Kumar in Bihar too. The Mahadalits and EBCs — the former created, the latter consolidated, by Nitish — appear to be drifting away from the JD(U), though they are noncommittal about returning in the 2015 assembly elections.
The Sahni and the Nishad (Mallaah) castes generally used to vote for the BJP before Nitish wooed the EBCs with job and political reservations. The 130-odd EBC castes constitute about 30 per cent of the state’s population; Muzaffarpur’s has about 14 per cent Mallaahs, who constitute more than half the EBC population in the district of two constituencies, Muzaffarpur and Vaishali.
Baidhyanath Sahni, a ward member in Chandparna panchayat in Vaishali, benefited from a 20 per cent reservation in the panchayat elections, but joined the BJP this year. “The BJP made me a panchayat unit president,” he says.
Despite the drift, Baidhyanath estimates at least 60 per cent of Mallaahs still support the JD(U). The BJP hopes more from the caste will switch over when the most popular Mallaah leader, Jai Narain Nishad, visits Vaishali constituency. Nishad, a five-time Muzaffarpur MP, won last time on a JD(U) ticket but has got the BJP to nominate his son Ajay from that seat.
In Vaishali, the JD(U) is banking on the caste of its candidate, Vijay Kumar Sahni. “Nitish did some good work,” says Rajdev Sahni. Anirudh Kumar of the Teli caste, now an active BJP supporter, taunts him: “Your love for Nitish began only after he nominated someone from your caste. Before that, you were saying things like, ‘Roti palatna hai’.”
At Mithinapur village, the Sahnis are yet to decide. “In 2005, 2010, we felt the JD(U) was our party,” says Nageshwar Sahni. In 2009, the village voted for a Sahni who was an independent candidate. “We need to overturn this government,” says Nageshwar, impressed by Modi at a rally recently.
In Purani bazaar of Muzaffarpur constituency, many Sahnis say they will go with the BJP. “Who knows Ajay Nishad? Even his father never helped our people,” says Fakeeri Sahni, 70. “My vote is for Modi. Roti palatna hai. I don’t want a government that doesn’t respond when soldiers’ heads are cut off.” His grandson is with the CRPF’s COBRA.
The EBCs and a section of the Mahadalits are unwilling to commit themselves on 2015. “Let’s give Modi a chance. If he is a butcher as Sonia Gandhi says he is, then I guess we will all suffer. Our people have suffered for so long, anyway. If Modi does not do work, throw him out. Sarkar should be like roti on a tawa: flip it all the time so that it does not get burnt,” says Mohan Choudhary, whose caste is among the Mahadalits.