It is 11 am. Amit Singh, the CPI coordinator for Cheria Bariapur, one of the seven Assembly segments under the Begusarai Lok Sabha seat, is waiting with an animated group of supporters for Kanhaiya Kumar, who is running late. As the CPI candidate finally arrives in a cavalcade of six vehicles, the supporters, who are on motorcycles, burst into slogans.
“Jai Kanhaiya Lal ki, haathi ghoda palki,” is one of the most popular slogans, interspersed by a song urging people to send Kanhaiya to Parliament.
Clad in a light purple shirt, his blurry eyes suggesting lack of sleep, Kanhaiya gives a short address through his car’s sunroof. In temperatures already touching the 35-degree mark, he has covered three Assembly segments today and Cheria Bariarpur is his fourth. With 15 days to go for polling in Begusarai, the plan is to cover 15-odd villages today, several of them predominantly Muslim.
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Though it is his first election, everyone here has heard of the 32-year-old — the former JNU students’ union president contesting charges of sedition, and part of the original “tukde-tukde” gang as per the BJP. Among those who have come to campaign for Kanhaiya so far are Gujarat Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, actor Swara Bhasker (a fellow JNU-ite), the mothers of Rohith Vemula (the Dalit student who committed suicide) and Najeeb Ahmed (a JNU student who has been missing since October 2016), Teesta Setalvad of the Citizens for Justice and Peace that has taken up cases of 2002 Gujarat riot victims, activist Gurmehar Kaur, and at least a dozen of his university mates, including Shehla Rashid.
Tamanna Khan, 26, among the supporters who follow Kanhaiya’s cavalcade on a motorcycle, is a Masters in English from nearby Aijni village. She says she supports the “young, energetic and well-meaning” candidate for “rising above caste and religion”. “Kanhaiya is logical and does not speak like a politician. He gives us hope of good representation in Parliament.”
There are many students like Khan in Kanhaiya’s crowd, who say they have come voluntarily from across Bihar for him. Pramod Kumar, who has done engineering from Delhi Technological University, says he refused placement offers to come and campaign. “I know Kanhaiya since 2016. If youths do not support a well-educated and well-meaning candidate like him, talk about concern for democracy has no meaning,” he says.
Mohammed Qamrul, 55, has been with Kanhaiya since he filed his nomination. Appreciating the “young boy’s thoughts” and his oratorial skills, the 55-year-old farmer says, “Here is someome who can criticise Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his failed promises and leave the BJP speechless.”
As Kanhaiya’s convoy moves down roads along harvested cane fields, curious villagers ask which candidate is travelling, and nod when told. “Yes, we had heard about this boy but not seen him,” says a villager, wishing Kanhaiya had stopped to meet them.
By noon, Kanhaiya is at Paroura village. Again addressing the crowd through the sunroof, he says, “At some place they (my political opponents) say we are against Islam, at another they say we are against the defence forces.” Cautioning people against such attempts to provoke them as well as against any fake videos, he switches to local dialect Angika to ask, “Log baantay ke koshish kar rahal chhay. Lekin hamme batbay tab na (People are trying to divide us. But will we be divided)?”
Momammed Niyamat Hussain, who is part of Kanhaiya’s convoy, says both Hindus and Muslims are rallying behind Kanhaiya, “an unusual thing these days”.
Kanhaiya’s next halt is Muslim-dominated Aijni. With a mosque as the backdrop, he repeats his message against rumour-mongers.
After leaving Ajini, the convoy picks speed. As it races past several villages, many wonder why the CPI candidate didn’t stop. “Vote mile na mile, rukna toh chahiye (Whether he gets the votes or not, he should have stopped),” says Guneshwar Yadav of Shekhotla villqge.
Reaching Pansalla around 3 pm, Kanhaiya stops at the house of Nathu Yadav, a committed CPI voter, for refreshments. Some supporters rush to arrange pedestal fans. As many surround him and take selfies, a CPI worker watching from a distance says Pansalla has a mixed population of EBC Sahnis, OBC Yadavs and Scheduled Caste Paswans, all of who support Kanhaiya, apart from Muslims. After around 40 minutes, Kanhaiya leaves, proclaiming “Begusarai will create history this time.”
At the penultimate halt for the day, Bariyara, the tired workers and supporters, most of whom have skipped lunch, line up on mats for a meal of rice, toor daal and aaloo-parwal. Waiting to eat, Kanhaiya uses the break for a brief interaction with the media.
Asked whether he was offering anything besides being anti-BJP, Kanhaiya says, “It is rather the BJP which is countering our narrative or posers on the lack of development.”
Claiming the BJP’s nationalism versus anti-nationalism talk won’t succeed, he adds, “If they dub me anti-national, how am I allowed to contest? What is the Election Commission of India or the Central government doing?”
Calling Giriraj Singh an outsider who accepted the Begusarai ticket reluctantly, Kanhaiya questions his record as a parliamentarian. “Begusarai Lok Sabha constituency has hardly seen any development in infrastructure or education. It needs a representative who can make local issues national. Begusarai needs a good voice in Parliament.”
Kanhaiya denies his campaign is directed at garnering the Muslim vote, including his criticism of the Modi government and his silence on the RJD’s Hassan. He is only “raising genuine concerns of Muslims”, he says.
Some women, their faces half-covered, come to garland Kanhaiya. He accepts the garlands, taking them off only after they leave.
It’s game on.