In an election dominated largely by caste, the selection of candidates by either side, too, is emerging an important factor from rural constituency to rural constituency.
While Lalu Prasad remains a major factor, the decision to vote or oppose a grand alliance candidate will not be based solely on favouring or opposing Lalu. There are Yadav voters who won’t go with the grand alliance because of its candidate in their seat.
Similar uncertainties face the BJP-led NDA. Though the NDA has distributed tickets after elaborate caste calculations, its choice at several places has taken some of the advantage away. For example, in Darbhanga Rural, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM has brought in Noushad Ali, a Muslim and from Jehanabad, upsetting locals including BJP supporters.
In Ali Nagar, voters have questioned the BJP’s decision to field former RJD MLC Misri Lal Yadav, who is from Keoti. Voters, especially BJP supporters, said a local Yadav candidate would have helped the BJP gain from anti-incumbency against RJD MLA Abdul Bari Siddiqui. Contrary to conventional caste wisdom, Siddiqui has support among Brahmins who, villagers said, would rally behind him with the BJP having fielded a Yadav.
In Keoti, Misri’s shift has rewritten caste calculations. In 2010, RJD candidate Faraz Fatmi, son of former Union minister Mohd Ali Ashraf Fatmi, had lost by 28 votes to Ashok Yadav, son of BJP MP Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav. Muslims form the biggest chunk of voters, followed by Yadavs and Brahmins. Last time, the BJP gained by fielding a Yadav; this time, it is the induction of Misri Lal that may work in its favour.
It has also had a contrary effect, however. Brahmins, traditional supporters of the BJP, invited Faraz for an interaction last weekend in Naya Gaon village. “It is bouqzi Yazid, not hubhi Hussain,’’ villager Arshad Ahmad said, explaining the unusual support of Brahmins for an RJD candidate. The metaphor was of Karbala, where support for Hussain came also from those who hated Yazid.
In nearby Gorabouram, voters said Ratan Tulsi would have been the best candidate. Tulsi, who left the RJD to join the BJP during the Lok Sabha polls, is a son of late RJD minister Mahavir Prasad Yadav who used to represent the seat.
Tulsi isn’t the BJP candidate; the LJP is contesting. His father had lost the last election to the JD(U)’s Izhar Ahmad. The JD(U) has not repeated Izhar despite a considerable Muslim presence here. It has given the seat to Madan Sahni, sitting MLA from Bahadurpur, targeting the Mallah vote. The decision not to repeat the Muslim candidate is not what may harm the JD(U); voters seem “unhappy with the lack of development”.
Sahni’s shift hasn’t gone well with his earlier constituents in Bahadurpur. BJP candidate Harish Sahni, also the party’s Darbhanga district president, has made a poll issue out of it, saying it is “disrespect to the work done” by a Mallah leader.
In Barachitti of Gaya district, where the Musahar community is strong, the grand alliance has helped the NDA’s cause by denying a ticket to sitting MLA Jyoti Manjhi, mother-in-law of Jitan Ram Manjhi’s son Santosh. After her seat was given to the RJD, she has said she will canvass for her family. Jitan Ram Manjhi and Santosh are NDA candidates. Many voters of the Musahar community said sidelining Jyoti Manjhi is a “second betrayal” by Nitish.
In Harsidhi in East Champaran, the grand alliance has replaced usual RJD candidate Satish Paswan with Rajinder Ram. Villagers say the choice of Ram against a Paswan, BJP MLA Krishna Nandan Paswan, helps the grand alliance; a Paswan versus a Paswan would have given the BJP the edge. Besides, MLA Paswan “hasn’t done much”.
In nearby Sagauli, the RJD has fielded Om Prakash Sahni, who has a criminal background, against Ram Chandra Sahni, two-time sitting BJP MLA, who has a sound reputation though he faces a possible divide in the Sahni vote.
In West Champaran, a region hit by crime during Lalu Prasad’s regime, the grand alliance has limited the RJD to one seat.
But there are constituencies where the selection has upset the Muslim electorate. For example, upper-caste Khan sahibs and a few Ansari activists in Imamganj resent the renomination of Speaker Uday Narayan Choudhary and are moving towards the NDA. Manjhi is the Speaker’s rival in a constituency with a considerable Musahar presence and where he also has Muslim support.
In Hayaghat in Darbhanga, too, the grand alliance is struggling to convince Muslims to vote for Amarnath Gami, the influential sitting legislator who has deserted the BJP to join the JD(U). The NDA has tactfully fielded a Muslim, Shahnawaz Kaifi, who was Gami’s nearest rival last time.