On Thursday, Ruidhasa Maidan on the outskirts of Kishanganj was its usual self, unruly grass, some children and stray pigs. Two days ago, this was where Congress leader Rahul Gandhi held a rally ahead of the last phase of the Bihar polls. Mohammad Zeeshan, who runs a tailoring shop in front of the ground, acknowledges, “Rahul spoke well”. But, in Kishanganj, it is another rally at Ruidhasa Maidan that is remembered most fondly, by AIMIM Chief Asaduddin Owaisi against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, in December 2019. “It was like all of Kishanganj was at the maidan. And how Owaisi spoke! Like a lion, fighting for our right to be Indian,” Zeeshan says.
Eleven months later, Owaisi and the CAA could well decide the election in Seemanchal — a region in Bihar’s north-east with large Muslim numbers — and by extension in Bihar. In a 2019 bypoll, the AIMIM had made its Bihar debut here by winning the Kishanganj Assembly seat.
Zeeshan, 52, working on the fall of a sari, says, “When the CAA made us feel like outsiders in our own land, it is Owaisi who stood for us. The Congress protested a little, but it was he who really backed us. I like him for the stands he takes. My sons watch his speeches in Parliament, those are full of facts.”
And yet, two days to go for polls, Zeeshan’s vote is still not decided. “Will the AIMIM candidate win? That is on everyone’s mind. Maybe it makes sense to vote for the Congress, which can ensure that the Mahagathbandhan will form the government.”
The Congress and RJD have repeatedly alluded that the AIMIM is propped up by the BJP, so as to split the Muslim vote.
Of the 24 seats that make up Seemanchal, the Mahagathbandhan in its current form (the RJD, Congress, and three Left parties) holds 14, the NDA nine and the AIMIM one. In the 2020 Assembly elections, the AIMIM is contesting 20 of the seats, in alliance with the RLSP and the BSP.
Across parties, the campaigning has been about national issues, unlike in other regions. The AIMIM keeps reminding people of the stand it took on the CAA, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav on Wednesday assured them of the party’s support as the Centre “harasses” them, while Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said, “Nobody has the strength to throw anyone out of the country.”
But Nitish’s record weighs against him. The JD(U) had voted for the CAA in Parliament, later seeking to undo the political damage by floating a resolution in the Assembly declaring that there was no need for a countrywide National Register of Citizens. The resolution was passed unanimously, with BJP MLAs’ support.
Says Abdul Siddique, who runs a fruit shop at the centre of Kishanganj: “Nitish says he has always spoken for love and peace. I do not disagree… But he seems to be losing steam, and if the BJP installs their CM, what will happen?”
Siddique also points out that while they voted for Nitish in 2015 “to keep the BJP out”, he had allied with them later.
In Kochadhaman, Saqib Khan, tending to his paddy fields, says this is why the AIMIM is his first choice. “We have seen enough of the Congress, BJP and JD(U). The AIMIM will never go with the BJP, that much confidence I have.”
A Purnea-based Congress leader admits their campaign is centred around government formation, implying that a vote for the AIMIM is a wasted vote. “They can win a few seats… Amour, Kochadhaman… Our message is simple. It is we who are in the fight to form the government.”
The Congress leader believes that Mayawati’s statement that she could vote for anyone, including the BJP, in the Uttar Pradesh MLC polls (later retracted), might cost its the AIMIM, its ally.
The NDA’s hope is that the Hindu vote will consolidate behind it. In the 2019 Kishanganj Assembly bypoll for instance, this had ensured that the Congress finished third in its traditional stronghold, behind the AIMIM and BJP.
Shankar Rai of Ruidhasa, however, points out, votes aren’t decided on national issues alone. “The Congress lost Kishanganj also because its MLA Mohammed Jawed moved to the Lok Sabha and put up his 72-year-old mother… This time there is a young Congress leader standing from the seat while the BJP candidate has lost three times.”
Standing next to Sadar Hospital in Kishanganj, Mukesh Kumar says he is ready to switch from the BJP to the Mahagathbandhan too. “Nitish has had enough time… Shayad Tejashwi theek karega, naukri dega. Agar nahin dega, toh agli baar phir change kar denge (Perhaps Tejashwi will be best, give us jobs. If he doesn’t, we will change him next time).”