It was over a month ago, but Anil Singh remembers the anger like it was yesterday, coursing through his veins. Singh and a group of 70 men had paid Rs 3,500 each to a truck driver to get home to Bihar from Delhi, travelling without food and water, cramped in the dark in the back of the vehicle, like criminals.
One time, Singh recalls, the truck driver told them to get off and hide as a Delhi Police vehicle cruised nearby. “I was so angry at Modi, at Nitish Kumar,” Singh says. “Who gives four hours before shutting down a country, leaving the poor to fend for themselves? Who bars people saying they might be carrying the coronavirus? Hum log keede makaude hain kya (Are we insects)?”
Since returning to his village of Mehesleti, Singh, who worked as a rajmistri in Delhi, has had no job and is running out of money. His anger still simmers, but is now directed as much at the Opposition. “Everybody has abandoned us. Have they come to help us? Has the MLA come? They are all the same,” Singh says.
As Bihar heads for low-key Assembly elections, modified suitably for the coronavirus pandemic, questions like Singh raises could be a determinant.
Bhagalpur, the focus of a series by The Indian Express to understand the effects on a district of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown, has the trappings of the rest of Bihar. There is a steeply rising coronavirus curve, complicated by high poverty indicators in Bhagalpur’s 1,500 villages, thousands of migrants who have returned and are now unemployed, and the spectre of floods.
While there are no signs of an election, what dominates conversations is all of the above — the pandemic, its effects, and the political response to it.
Local BJP leaders in Bhagalpur admit that in May and June, there was palpable anger against the ruling NDA, both at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. “When we set up the equipment for digital rallies (held by BJP leaders, including Amit Shah), they asked if we could not help them instead. The party told us to keep meeting people, ask them what they wanted from their leaders,” a former deputy mayor of Bhagalpur says, adding, “Who could have dealt with a worldwide pandemic better than Modi and Nitish, symbols of good governance? Now people realise that this pain is everywhere, in every state.”
However, the BJP leader feels, it will eventually come down to the candidates. “If you didn’t stand with the people, cowered inside your house, you will get voted against.”
In Govindpur, Naugacchia, washed away by the overflowing Kosi River, the youth dismiss the current lot of politicians as “media neta”. “People had to walk thousands of kilometres, died on the way. Say what you want about Lalu Prasad, if he was out of jail, you think he would sit in TV studios and give lectures? He would be in the middle of the people, protesting. The parties all say we distributed this relief, that relief. Come to the ground and see. Gareeb ka awaaz uthao, hamare saath khade ho. Lalu utna toh karta (Speak up for the poor, stand with them. Lalu would have done that at least). How is the Opposition better than the government?” asks Raghu Rishidev.
Even if the elections come back to caste combinations, many believe the RJD-led alliance will struggle beyond the 30% Muslim-Yadav vote. Sharan Dev Singh, a veteran JD(U) worker at Chara Badgaon village in Bhulni, says, “We will remind people what the Lalu years were like, how the Yadavs ruled everything.”
An RJD worker sitting nearby admits, “Our leaders should have done more.” However, he hopes that the lingering anger over “abandonment” following the lockdown will help the RJD. “It may have become quieter, but it doesn’t just disappear… (Besides) in the past five years, especially after he joined hands with the BJP, Nitish has done nothing. People will vote on anti-incumbency too. Let us campaign, the elections haven’t even begun,” he adds.
Sanjay Kumar Prasun of Mehesleti believes another issue might queer the pitch. A worker of the Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party that has parted ways with the BJP, Prasun is a self-professed “Modi fan”. “People of my community identified with him, that here was an OBC who had made it big… However, now, the community senses a problem. They (the Centre) are considering changing OBC reservation, increasing creamy layer limit.”
Prasun says that given the size of the OBC vote bank, the Opposition could use this, combined with the anger over the lockdown. However, he is pragmatic enough to admit another factor: “The prospect of a Yadav Chief Minister again is a problem.”
Of issues resonating in distant Delhi now, such as China and the Ram Mandir, Bhagalpur has little time.
Apart from the pandemic, if there is a broad consensus — from villages to traders sitting outside their locked stores in Khalifabagh market — it is on something else. Says one trader at a shuttered cloth store, “Our business is down 80%, cases are rising, deaths are happening, people have no income, and now floods. This is no time for an election.”
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