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‘Maharajganj battle is launchpad to Delhi,Lalu is contesting’

On the campaign trail with Lalu Prasad,who senses an opening in the Lok Sabha bypoll

It has been a while since the home of former MP Prabhunath Singh at Mashkakh last had such a crowd. It is 10.15 am and RJD workers pack the house,for their chief Lalu Prasad has been camping here since May 26,and campaigning for Prabhunath in the Maharajganj Lok Sabha bypoll on June 2.

Each of the first two days of campaigning has included at least three public meetings,and road-shows through 30-odd places. Lalu has been returning at 3 am,which leaves him with little time for sleep before he is up again and preparing for the next day’s campaign.

Lalu senses an opportunity in the election,with disenchantment growing against the NDA government,largely over corruption.

Before he sets off on the day’s campaign,Lalu sits comfortably in a sofa,wearing a vest and surrounded by supporters,who give him feedback from panchayats and blocks.

With him is former director general of police Ashish Ranjan Sinha,once close to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar,but now Lalu’s adviser. Sinha looks up phone numbers from his diary and makes calls on Lalu’s behalf.

When he talks about the polls,Lalu gestures with his arms as usual,raising his voice whenever he wants to stress a point. He calls the battle one-sided and dismisses all talk about a division of the Rajput vote. The Congress has fielded Jitendra Swamy against Prabhunath,both of them Rajputs,as are 3.25 lakh of the 15 lakh voters in the constituency. Bhumihars and Yadavs form the next largest caste groups.

“These media people sit in air-conditioned offices and make caste calculations,” Lalu says dismissively. “The ground reality is different.”

Asked if he is hurt at the Congress’s decision to field a candidate,he does show a hint of irritation. Then he adds,“Every party has the right to field a candidate… Never underestimate the political wisdom of voters,even of those in maile (soiled) clothes. Every caste group is feeling cheated under Nitish’s rule.”

Indoors

A group of party workers,including some women,enter the room and touch his feet. One woman,who belongs to the nomadic Nat community,says members of her family have been framed in a case. Lalu gets the police station-in-charge on the line. “Nats are simple people,zara dekh lena,” he says.

As the group leaves,Lalu links his campaign to Nitish’s claims about good roads. He says he has been using approach roads most of the time and found them difficult to negotiate. “Only national highways and PMGSY roads,built with central funds,are in good shape,” he says,as he greets another group of people,these of the economically backward Nonia caste. An elderly Nonia assures him,“ Saab,of our 2,200 votes,2,175 are yours.” Lalu smiles.

Every now and then,he returns to his pet subject. “Nitish has taken away most of my people,yet he tries to invoke the fear of Lalu among people.” These former Lalu supporters are being called the L-18 in Nitish’s team. Lalu corrects that: “And where did Nitish go from? Make it L-19.” He adds,“Nitish will never part ways with the BJP. People can see through that.”

Once they have met him,most supporters are asked to leave. The few who remain,apparently those with higher influence and easier access,nod at his every word. Now and then,adviser Sinha puts in a word,offering information or his interpretation of the political situation,though even he never interrupts when Lalu is speaking.

Next in is a group of contract teachers. They say there are 9,500 of them in the Lok Sabha seat and pledge their support — 50,000 votes including those of their families and relatives. Lalu advises them,“Tell this media-wale.” The teachers,who earn Rs 6,000 a month,say not one of their votes will go to Nitish as they have been denied annual hikes as well as regularisation. Lalu has promised regularisation if the RJD wins in 2015.

He mocks Nitish’s demand for special category status,too,calling it “birni ka chhatta”,or a hive of wasps. “People at the Centre will keep Nitish waiting. Are they fools to grant Bihar special category? If they do,over a dozen states will ask for it.”

Lunch is served early: chapatis,dal and vegetables,while he keeps talking away. Amid all his talk of inclusive politics comes a subtle mention of “Brahmarshi Samaj”,the Bhumihars,whom he showers with praise. The JD(U) candidate,state HRD Minister P K Shahi,comes from this caste group.

Outdoors

It is 11.45 am,time to leave for the first public meeting,at Dhanuki Bazar. Lalu checks the quality of the apples that have to be kept in his vehicle. This is what will sustain him for the rest of the day,for his schedule will leave him with no time for another meal. “Pack a little bhujiya too,” he tells his supporters,who nod.

The RJD campaign theme,recorded earlier,alerts people that Lalu’s car has arrived. At the sight of every group of supporters,however small,he stops for a brief speech. Some wonder why he did not come in a helicopter. An udan khatola,they note,would have ensured larger crowds.

At Dhanuki Bazar,part of the Panapur assembly segment,a crowd of 2,500 has gathered. Some say the heat and the wedding season have kept many at home. Those who did arrive shout slogans,not only for Lalu and his candidate but also for incarcerated RJD leader Mohammed Shahabuddin,former Siwan MP.

Candidate Prabhunath speaks first,in Bhojpuri. Lalu follows,mixing Hindi and Bhojpuri: “Maharajganj ke ladai Dilli ke chadai ba. Prabhunath nahin,Lalu ladela.” It means,“The battle of Maharajganj is a launchpad to Delhi. It is not Prabhunath but Lalu who is contesting.”

He falls back on his trademark humour: “Do you miss Lalu now? I may have a sharp tongue but am not bad at heart.” He reminds the crowd of growing crime,of harassment of contract teachers,of the government’s failure to set up a single factory. When he was a union minister,he tells them,he had ensured seven railway factories.

By the time he is ready to leave,the talk in the crowd is about how Lalu has not changed in all these years. A few observe that the old figures of speech he still keeps using have become irrelevant in today’s politics.

The next destination is Madarpur,part of the Goriakothi assembly segment. Once again,Lalu makes brief stops to acknowledge people’s greetings. He knows he has to leave a mark before Nitish starts a rigorous campaign later this week,covering most of the places now on Lalu’s trial.

On stage,he calls a local singer and gets him to sing a folk song. The lyrics describe how the lantern,the RJD symbol,is set to light up Maharajganj. Lalu offers the singer his chair,then starts his speech. People like Narendra Modi will never manage to come to power at the Centre,he says. This area has a sizeable Muslim population,besides the dominant Bhumihars. Lalu calls for Muslim unity against communal forces. Eventually,he renews his attack on Nitish. Gaurav Upadhyay,a voter,predicts Lalu will click on account of public displeasure with Nitish because of corruption.

At Goriakothi town,the crowd is again modest,and the speech largely similar. Akram Khan,a voter,pledges support to Lalu,saying Nitish’s securalism card is an eyewash.

At 6.15 pm,Lalu is ready to board the Parivartan Rath,the bus for his road-show. He will stop at some 40 places,share snacks with some,chat with others. “Road-shows are a great occasion to mix with people,” he says.

A voice in the crowd says: “Laluji has lost weight.” The response comes in a flash. “He has shed weight so that he can gain some of the ground lost.”

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