If the JD(U)’s Ram Sunder Das has his way again, Hajipur could become home to the oldest parliamentarian in the world. Das, 93, was chief minister of Bihar for less than 10 months in 1979-1980. He first became a Lok Sabha MP at age 70 in 1991, when Ram Vilas Paswan did not contest.
Paswan may be seven victories old in this SC-reserved constituency, but lost in 2009 to Das, then 88, who became the oldest member of the 15th Lok Sabha. With the world’s oldest parliamentarian Rishang Keishing, 94, opting to retire before his Rajya Sabha term ended this year, the record is there for the taking.
Hajipur had taken Paswan into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1977 by electing him by 4.25 lakh votes. He bettered that in 1989, winning by 5.05 lakh to become the only candidate to have won twice with the highest margin, though the largest single margin has since gone to Anil Basu (CPM), who won from Bengal’s Arambagh by 5.93 lakh votes in 2004.
Das talks of Paswan with warmth, using only “Ram Vilasji.” “Elections used to be about the fight for justice. All I see are personal attacks these days,” he says, taking a tablet that an aide passes on from the back seat of the powder blue Innova. He never gets out of his car.
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“Age does not matter; the individual does. I tell the people: look at the work I have done and elect me,” says Das. “If you want people above a certain age to retire from politics, make a law about that. Look, we have a tradition where sadhus lived for a thousand years. What is an 80-year-old before that?”
Kishore, his closest aide, and other handlers are careful not to exert Das. He does not address any public meetings during the road show and speaks only when villagers approach him with a problem. His eyes light up when a man who looks almost as old as him walks up. He holds the villager’s hand and promises to visit his house after the elections. His campaign announcements make special mention of the schemes the Nitish Kumar government has implemented for senior citizens. “He has not taken a break since March 30. He sets out from his house in Patna each morning at 9.30 and returns around 10 pm,” said Om Prakash Kushwaha, JD(U)’s Vaishali district president.
Das is aware that all attention is on his age: “I have been telling people to look at my yesterday and today. I don’t know whether I will be here tomorrow – but then, neither do you.”
And the 97-year-old who almost challenged him
Hajipur: Ram Vilas Paswan’s supporters began sweating about losing votes to mistaken identity when a previously unknown Ram Vilas Bhagat, 97, filed his nomination as an independent. Bhagat says he was abducted, kept in custody for two days and made to file his papers. He even went to Patna and met Paswan on April 20 and withdrew his application on April 22. No police complaint has been made about the abduction.
Upinder Paswan was in Faridabad, where he works, when he saw his father on the TV news. “It was after he filed his documents on April 17. I got the next train home,” he said, as his father sat eating rice and fish out of a steel bowl, oblivious to the minor political storm he caused.
Upinder said the family realised only in the evening that Bhagat was missing: “He has a habit of going on walkabouts with his cane.”
Bhagat has five sons and lives in Bhairopur in Vaishali district. “I was standing in the junction when some people came and asked me to get into a car,” he said. “They kept me in a building for two days and treated me well. The food was good… They told me they wanted to make me mukhiya [panchayat president]. How could I say no?”
Upinder said he wasted no time in making his father withdraw: “If my father’s name was on the machine, at least 10,000 people would have mistakenly voted for him. I didn’t want my father to be the reason why my leader [Ram Vilas Paswan] lost,” he said.
And Bhagat said: “Of course I will vote for my mitr.”