So, how does Begusarai see Kanhaiya Kumar, arguably its most popular son as far as the rest of India is concerned at the moment? We travelled to three villages with different demographics and, of course, perceptions of the CPI candidate.
Ramdiri, dominated by Bhumihars
Gopal Kumar, 33, carries with him the indignation of a wronged man. On April 18, Kumar, a resident of the Bhumihar-dominated Ramdiri village in Begusarai, confronted the CPI Lok Sabha candidate of his constituency, and found himself in a viral video titled ‘Kanhaiya Kumar faces protest during Bihar roadshow’.
“I had meant to ask some questions to Kanhaiya Kumar ever since the JNU videos went viral. Yesterday, when I met him at the roadshow, I felt it’s my duty to ask him what he wants azaadi (freedom) from,” says Gopal.
Though his face is hardly visible in the video, Gopal earned himself a bit of a fan following in the village. “Gopal asked the right question. Kanhaiya’s answer to him was escapist. He called Gopal a BJP man. The truth is Kanhaiya is a deshdrohi (anti-national) and he shouldn’t stand for elections from Begusarai,” says Deepak Kumar, a private tutor from Ramdiri.
The incident may be a one-off, but it brings to the fore the biggest challenge that Kanhaiya will have to face in these elections: winning the confidence of his own Bhumihar community.
“He is also a Bhumihar, but he has very little empathy for us. All he wants to do is pose with the Muslim community,” says Barun Kumar Singh, 45, a Bhumihar farmer from Ramdiri. Bhumihars account for nearly 20 per cent of Begusarai’s votes.
“Why will our community support him when he is so hell-bent on dissociating himself from his own community? Why did he protest that 10 per cent reservation for the economically backward?” asks Gopal.
The narrative is considerably different in the nearby Muslim-dominated village of Noorpur. At the centre of the village lies the historic Shahi Jama Masjid, which is said to have been built in 1798 by the son of Mir Jafar, the first Nawab of Bengal. Faiyazul Haque runs a medicine shop in the shadow of the masjid.
“In our village, the youth is completely with Kanhaiya Kumar. It’s not about religion, it’s about employment, education and other issues related to progress that no other candidate seems to be bothered with,” says Haque.
Mohammad Ikram-Ul-Haq, 55, left Begusarai in 1984 in search of a job. Since then he divides his time between Middle East and India.
“I have worked in UAE and Oman. I do whatever menial work I get there. It’s unfortunate that so many industries in this area closed down, and we were rendered jobless,” says Ikram.
Begusarai, and the adjoining Barauni, once had a fertiliser plant, thermal power plant, refinery, dairy and a number of ancillary units. Most of them closed down over the years. “We can’t expect him to revive the industries in a day, but the good thing is that he is raising these issues,” says Ikram.
Predictably, the youth of Begusarai have more passionate reasons to support Kanhaiya.
Zohaib Sulaiman, 24, a graduate from GD College of Begusarai, is an articulate young man who claims he has been hunting for a job for the past two years unsuccessfully. But that’s not the only reason he won’t vote for the BJP, which got almost 40 per cent of the votes in 2014.
“You just have to hear the kind of vitriol the BJP candidate has to spout against the Muslims to make up your mind. In this atmosphere, I am constantly made aware of my Muslim identity. I want a leader who doesn’t see me as a Muslim voter, I want him to see me as any other citizen of the country,” says Sulaiman.
Kamruddinpur, dominated by Dalits and OBC
Kiran Devi, a worker in the Begusarai Municipal Corporation, doesn’t have time for small talk. “Votes are sold for Rs 5,000 here. The one who has more money, wins,” she says. Yet, she agrees that Kanhaiya has stirred a bit of curiosity in the village.
“He is new blood, but we have to see if he is really up to the task,” is her non-committal take on Kanhaiya.
Very few in the village are as forthcoming. “I don’t care much for the elections. I will go with the flow. I keep my head down and do my own thing,” says Dheeraj Kumar, who works as a carpenter in Begusarai town.
According to the 2011 census, people from the SC/ST category constitute 14 per cent of Begusarai’s population.
Manoj Kumar, a student of GD College, has pinned his faith on Kanhaiya.
“I know one thing for sure, Kanhaiya will be a good parliamentarian. He will raise our issues there, he will get us our funds,” says the 20-year-old.