Balloons and toys are being sold from bicycles, customers are lined up at snacks stalls, and the swings are full of children. If there are any fears regarding the coronavirus, the Durga Puja fair at Tetri village in Bhagalpur district doesn’t display any.
Pawan Singh is testing his luck at a game requiring a participant to throw rings over notes of Rs 5, 10, 20. Employed with a private software company at Pune, he finishes with Rs 10 spent and no wins.
Later, sipping tea, Singh says there is no question things have changed under Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. “He has got tap water to villages (under the Nal Jal Yojna). Electricity has improved so much that I can work from home without worrying about power connection.”
However, adding to the common refrain of this election, Singh says they expect more — than just the basics of water and power. “Development here is very slow… Other states have Metro, companies, industries… There are software companies even in Nagpur… Not everyone leaves their state out of choice.”
Going to polls on November 3, Bhagalpur is one of the five Assembly seats being contested by the BJP where the LJP, which has exited the NDA in Bihar, has fielded candidates. While LJP chief Chirag Paswan is seen as propped up by the BJP to undermine Nitish, in Bhagalpur, this might boomerang on the BJP.
While the BJP candidate is its district president Rohit Pandey, a Brahmin, the Congress’s Ajit Sharma, the sitting MLA, is a Bhumihar, and the LJP has fielded Bhagalpur Deputy Mayor Rajesh Verma, a Marwari. A largely urban constituency, Bhagalpur is dominated by Banias, Brahmins, Marwaris and Muslims.
The 1989 Hindu-Muslim riots in which more than a thousand people died under a Congress government had virtually shut out the party in the elections that followed. The polarisation, exacerbated by the Ram temple agitation, ensured that the BJP won five consecutive times after 1990, with Ashwini Kumar Choubey, a Brahmin, elected four times. In 2015, he vacated the seat for his son, and moved on to the Lok Sabha.
Subsequently, in 2015, after 15 years, the Congress won the Bhagalpur Assembly seat, with Sharma defeating BJP candidate and Choubey’s son Arijit Shashwat by a little over 10,000 votes. A BJP rebel polled 15,212 votes. The Congress also benefited due to allies RJD and JD(U) drawing it the Muslim vote.
The anger regarding failed promises is not hard to understand. One of four Bihar towns on the Centre’s Smart Cities list, Bhagalpur grapples with traffic jams, especially on the 4.7-km Vikramshila Setu. Ranjan Singh, who commutes over the bridge to his home town, says, “If a vehicle breaks down, there are jams up to 24 hours. There is no provision in the bridge’s design to remove such a vehicle.”
The town has been waiting for an airport since the time former civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain won from here in 2006. College exams are known to be delayed for years, with very few offering professional courses. Coaching centres fill the gap.
This time, apart from the confusion created by the LJP, the BJP could face problems due to the denial of ticket to Shashwat and former deputy mayor Preety Shekhar, both popular leaders, fuelling rift in the local unit.
The lanes that crisscross Sonapatti have encroachments on both sides. Idly watching a bike struggle down one such lane from his garment shop, Sagar Vyas, a Marwari, says, “Most here do not want a repeat of 2015 where a BJP rebel ended up benefiting the Congress. The community is discussing which way they want to go.”
Ashish Jha, a student, says, “Verma (the LJP candidate) is popular, but he will have to convince that he is a challenger and not a vote katua (splitter).” Voicing the unease in the BJP ranks, Jha adds, “The BJP thought that the LJP will dent the JD(U) but it (the LJP) is now an unguided missile. Depending upon the candidate, it is damaging the RJD in some areas and the BJP here.”
In private, local BJP leaders admit the same, saying that while the Congress will not have any difficulty securing the estimated 30% Muslim-Yadav vote, the LJP might dent the BJP in the fight for the rest 70%.
Saluddin Ahsan, Principal of Muslim Minority College, says the community has largely forgiven the Congress for the riots. Its CM Satyendra Narayan Sinha had not even visited Bhagalpur after the violence. Says Ahsan, “With the RJD as its partner, the Congress is largely seen as secular. The party has largely abstained from making communal statements.” He admits though that sometimes the Congress “keeps quiet”, out of fear of being accused of appeasement politics, adding “truth must be told without fear”.
In Barhepura, a Muslim-dominated area, Mohammad Yunus is returning after a game of cricket. A carpenter, he came home during the lockdown from Noida as work dried up, but is struggling. “The contractor has asked me to come, but I want to stay here.” About the elections, Yunus says, “The state needs a change.”
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