They speak his name with respect — and regret.
In 1968, for the first time in Bihar, a Dalit became Chief Minister, though his term lasted just three months.
Bhola Paswan Shastri became Chief Minister again, twice — for 13 days in 1969, and 7 months in 1971 as political turmoil overtook the state.
The short tenures notwithstanding, Shastri’s village Bairgacchi remembers him as a fond son, a three-term Chief Minister, and a symbol of lost honesty.
People here tell stories of a man who refused to build personal wealth, of a home that continued to be a hut long after the end of his third tenure, a man who continued to sleep on the floor. And in that, there is a tinge of regret.
Sitting outside Shastri’s home, Sagar Paswan recalls: “He was so honest that he did nothing for himself, nor gave his own village any undue favours. If he had been like today’s politicians, he would have had a palace, and we may have had a functional drain.”
The signs that carry his name are everywhere. A board to the right of the road reads ‘Bhola Paswan Shastri Gram’. Next to his ancestral home, there is a community building built in his honour by Dhamdaha MLA Leshi Singh.
And yet, the bylanes have open drains, there is very little work available, and village residents, hit by the impact of Covid and the lockdown, wait for jobs.
Shastri had no children, but in July this year, local TV channels reported the pitiable condition of his extended family, forced to live off government ration. Political parties rushed in, with the RJD and others offering financial help.
On Friday, the family was not in the village, having travelled to Purnea for work. Those in the village said everyone had an identical story.
“Right from his time, nothing has happened in the village. Yes, some roads were built, but there is no work. Every family in Bairgacchi sends its own out of Bihar to work. During the lockdown, nobody had any income,” Sagar Paswan said.
Saibal Paswan, all of 22, returned in May from Delhi, where he worked as a labourer at an iron girder unit in Chhattarpur. He was lucky – he came home in a bus, paid for by his employers. But he doesn’t have the money to return.
“I left as a 12-year-old, spent a long time in Punjab, and then moved to Delhi. Every family has to send the children out. Most depend on income from labour but that dried up during the lockdown. Since then, we have only survived on government ration. I want to go back, but the bus ticket will cost Rs 2,000, which I don’t have,” he said.
As they discuss the impact of the lockdown outside the community hall built in Shastri’s honour, a group of men talk of the present generation of political leaders, and their disconnect with the poor.
“Then there were no resources to do anything. Shastri was born to a poor home, his father worked in the home of the royal family of Darbhanga. At that time, they didn’t want people from our caste to study, but he did and went to the Kashi Vishwavidyalaya. He never forgot the poor, and always stood with them. Now, all these politicians, once they become leaders, forget about us and the effect that their decisions have on us,” said 24-year-old Akash Kumar, referring to the lockdown.
He worked as a labourer in a shoe factory in Kerala before the lockdown, but can’t arrange Rs 6,000 for the return passage.
The village is part of the Dhamdaha constituency, where JDU candidate Leshi Singh is seeking a third consecutive term, contesting against Dilip Kumar Yadav of RJD and Yogendra Kumar of LJP.
Manish Kumar Paswan, who at 72 works occasionally at Purnea’s brick kilns for Rs 300 a day, says a majority of the vote in 2015 went to the JDU, then fighting alongside the RJD. “This is a big village, and has people of both communities, Hindus and Muslims. Both voted for Nitish Kumar last time. But what has he done for us in the last five years? Very few people have land here. We all hoped that he would give us three decimals of land that his government promised, but that hasn’t happened. Naukri nahi hai, sthiti bahut kharaab ho gayi hai. Padhe-likhe bacche ghar baithe hain (There are no jobs, the situation is very bad. Educated young people are sitting idle at home),” he said.
While the consensus is that the large Muslim community is shifting towards the RJD, among the Paswan community, there is talk of “badlaav” (change), and much affection for the late Ram Vilas Paswan, and his son Chirag.
In Manish Kumar’s hands is a one-page letter circulated by LJP cadre, ostensibly written by Ram Vilas Paswan before his death last month, of the work he had always done, and about his son “fighting for Bihari pride”.
“After Shastri, if there was a leader who spoke for our community, it was Ram Vilas. He remained humble even after he moved to Delhi. Now that he has passed, and the burden has fallen on his son, should we not support him?” he said.
In Bairgacchi, the sentiment seems to have fallen into a neat little bow. There is anti-incumbency against the Chief Minister, anger fuelled by economic distress and the lockdown, and an option to vote against the ruling party.
Manish Kumar also speaks fondly of Lalu Prasad, saying he never forgot his roots, and even had a cowshed at his residence even when he was Chief Minister.
“Lalu theek tha, gareeb ke liye sochta tha (Lalu was alright, he thought of the poor) … Tejashwi is a young man, and may do well. But there is fear about what that may bring. We are aware that voting for Chirag may mean that the RJD will win, but then we can kill two birds with one stone. We are voting for our leader, and voting for change. Waise bhi, koi bhi aaye, baat wahin hai. Koi Bhola Shastri ki tarah nahi hai ab (It does not matter who comes. Nobody is like Bhola Shastri),” he said.
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