THERE ISN’T perhaps a more famous candidate making his electoral debut this time. The question in Begusarai though is whether the reasons for Kanhaiya Kumar’s fame — a hero to one side, a traitor to another, his reputation preceding him from Delhi to this constituency in Bihar — would matter eventually more than caste calculations.
With approximately 23 per cent of its 19.50 lakh voters Bhumihars, the upper caste that Kanhaiya belongs to, Begusarai has among the highest concentration of this group in Bihar. Once Kanhaiya, a Begusarai native, had expressed his wish to contest, the CPI dispensed with its usual rigorous scrutiny to clear its student activist’s name, while party veterans readily stepped aside.
Since then, the CPI has stood steadfast behind Kanhaiya, even though it eventually could not convince the Mahagathbandhan of the RJD and Congress to back him.
With its many industries, a refinery and a thermal power plant, Begusarai was once seen as set on the road to development. Along with those industries had come workers, most of whom aligned with the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) — eventually earning the area the tag of Leningrad. For a long while, Begusarai in a way controlled the CPI which, in turn, enjoyed a sizeable presence in the state Legislature till the late ’80s, after the Congress and socialist groups.
However, by the end of that decade, the CPI’s hold in the area had started slipping in the face of both Mandal and Mandir. Its largest support base, also forming a chunk of its state leadership, the Bhumihars too shifted allegiance over the temple issue, while the AITUC ceded space to the BJP’s Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh. The last time the CPI won Begusarai was back in 1996.
While the RJD and JD(U) won from there later, the BJP kept increasing its vote share, and in 2014, wrested Begusarai, fielding veteran socialist and OBC leader Bhola Singh.
Its choice this time seems dictated by Kanhaiya’s candidature. Giriraj Singh is a fellow Bhumihar and die-hard RSS man, who made more news as Union minister for his controversial remarks against people he alleged were “anti-nationals” — in the BJP’s list, Kanhaiya is among those at the top. Giriraj was shifted to Begusarai despite publicly questioning the denial of a ticket from his old constituency, Nawada.
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The third contestant in the race, the RJD’s Tanveer Hassan, can’t be written off either. Pointing out that Hassan had got more than 3.50 lakh votes in Begusarai in 2014 in midst of the Modi wave, RJD national spokesperson Shivanand Tiwari says, “The anti-BJP parties should have supported our candidate.”
Apart from its own support base, RJD leaders are hopeful of the Bhumihar votes getting divided between Kanhaiya and Giriraj.
In private, CPI leaders say that RJD leader Tejaswi Yadav, who is calling the shots in the party in the absence of Lalu Prasad, who is serving out a jail sentence, held out against backing Kanhaiya as he doesn’t want another youth leader to emerge from Bihar.
But should Kanhaiya lose as a result, it is the youth who would be among the biggest losers, says a Muslim driver.
Noting the shared hope that the CPI candidate would raise the level of the campaign above the planks of caste and religion, the 57-year-old says, “Youths from across faith boundaries will vote for Kanhaiya. If he loses, that will be a sad thing to happen to national politics, and not the CPI alone.”