On a sunny March afternoon, scores of foodstalls line Patna’s Gandhi Maidan — the site of several political rallies over the decades. Near Gate No. 5 of the 66-acre ground, Upendra Kumar Singh has set up his paan cart.
“I had attended the Prime Minister’s rally. It was raining. Some people left but most stayed on. There was a good crowd at the rally,” says the 48-year-old, handing out a meetha paan to a customer. Click for more election news
Singh is referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s March 3 ‘Sankalp Rally’ rally at Gandhi Maidan, following which RJD chief Lalu Prasad had mocked him for failing to attract people to the event. “Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar (Bihar CM) and (LJP chief Ram Vilas) Paswan have worked for months to organise the rally at Gandhi Maidan… The number of people the rally has attracted is similar to the gathering I could have attracted if I stopped at a paan shop,” Lalu had tweeted.
A resident of Chhapra, the Lok Sabha constituency represented by Lalu Prasad in the past, Singh dismisses Lalu’s comment as a joke. “He has always been fun loving,” he says.
Before every big rally, the stall owners around Gandhi Maidan, which can accommodate nearly seven lakh people, are asked to remove their carts for security reasons. The shops return after the event.
Like always, the discussion on politics draws a small crowd — “it’s not good for my business because people crowd around and talk politics and many of them don’t even buy anything”.
One of Singh’s customers today is Nageshwar Prasad, 56, an auto-rickshaw driver, who argues that the “Congress and the RJD have not managed to challenge Modi in a big way”. “Some people say there is too much nationalism. But which Indian wouldn’t get angry if Pakistan attacks our jawans? Our forces have done the right thing by attacking them,” says Prasad, referring to the aerial strikes by India on terror camps in Balakot, Pakistan.
He also claims to have witnessed some of the biggest rallies at Gandhi Maidan since the 1970s. “Rallies by Jai Prakash Narayan in 1974, VP Singh in 1990, Lalu Prasad in 1993 and 1994 and Narendra Modi in 2013 drew some of the biggest crowds here,” he says.
Singh agrees with his customer, “Most people who visit my shop seem happy with Modi, especially after the strikes in Pakistan. People believe that this government can take tough decisions. It means business,” says Singh, handing over a paan to Prasad.
Singh then goes on to talk fondly about his son, who is studying in a “private engineering college”. “I may have struggled in life but I am glad I got my son into college. I am sure he will do well,” he says, adding that as an “upper caste”, it’s odd for him to be selling paan. “But I have no regrets, every job has its dignity,” says Singh, who earns about Rs 800 a day, adding, “I am here from 10 am to 9 pm. Over a hundred people visit my shop daily.”
As the conversation drifts towards Rahul Gandhi, Singh says most people who visited his shop after the Congress president’s February rally did not seem convinced. “Most of them complained that he only came for the polls. He didn’t explain how he would be a better PM than Modi,” says Singh.
Soon, Bajrang Kumar from Samastipur joins the men, and talks about Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into politics. “It has come too late,” he says. “In Bihar, Congress will have little say. The contest has always been between Lalu Prasad and Nitish-BJP… The present government has given LPG gas and health insurance to the poor. Modi works for us and also talks to people about it. What is wrong with that,” says Kumar, who works at a private firm. “Rahul Gandhi will have to tell us what he can do better and differently.”
Around 3.30 pm, Bikesh Kumar, 21, arrives at Singh’s shop. A graduate who is now appearing for exams to join the armed forces, Kumar says there has been “too much politics” over the aerial strikes. “Nationalism has overtaken important political issues,” he says.
But Amit Kumar, a driver, says: “Why do we forget the caste factor? Modi is popular but NDA must not underestimate its opponents.”