Om Sai Sweets is a small little nondescript shop. It has a counter that is half empty, but has some biscuits for sale, a small fridge that has juice, and a stove for tea. Yet, Ramesh Sharma couldn’t be prouder of his little store.
Looming in front of the shop, is an arching gate called the “Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan Dwar”, also known as Jogbani’s India-Nepal Border. So Sharma’s shop he says, is the last Indian store this side of the border. For eight months though, since March, the otherwise bustling border has been shut for trade, Om Sai Sweets has had close to no business.
As 78 seats went to the polls in the third and final phase of the Bihar assembly elections on Saturday, in Jogbani, an election that has stayed largely focused on local issues, has an international problem.
The border town of Jogbani falls under the Forbesganj constituency of Araria district, one of the seats that saw polling on Saturday. The town has grown over the last three decades, into rows and rows of shops. On Saturday, most were empty or shut. But it wasn’t just this Saturday. It has been like this for eight months because the usual clientele in all of them, is from across the border. “Before March, all of these shops would have been bustling with customers from Viratnagar in Nepal which is 2 kilometres away. They come here because the supply to the shops there goes from India, and because it is across the border and there are duties and taxes attached, goods are more expensive there. So people from a wide radius in Nepal, come to Jogbani to buy goods. Now business is down to 25 percent. Mudde toh yaha international hi local hai,” Sharma laughs.
Close by, Santosh Pandit has a store that sells Indian dry fruits and other knick knacks, that is empty too. Forbesganj has been a BJP stronghold since 1990, except once when the BSP won in 2000, and now in the middle of a contest with the BJP and the Congress the primary players. “A lot of people here still back the BJP, me included. It is a border area after all. But there is some anger which is hard to predict if it affects voting. But it has no basic facilities. If elections are taking place, why are our shops empty,” he said.
Right in front of his shop, is the Jogbani Railway Station, and at least 50 Nepali citizens, who arrived by train, are stranded because the gates are closed even for residents on Saturday. Among them, Shabnam Dev, a student of Sharda University in Noida said, “I live in Viratnagar and was coming home because my examinations finished. We have been told we can’t cross over today because of election day. Maybe tomorrow.”
Yet, for an international border, complete with a land port, the roads of Jogbani barely exist. On a busy day, they are always choked. Satender Paswan, who works as a labourer near the Railway Station, “Every time the BJP wins. But why can’t they fix the roads? When someone enters our country what impression do they get? Of this, dirt and bad roads. We have had one demand for so many years and Nitish Kumar says he has built roads, but look for yourself. Maybe it is time for some change,” he said.
At 10 am at the government senior secondary school in town, there were voters standing in line, and a now familiar pattern. Two anganwadi workers at the gate, with a thermometer and giving out gloves. They wore masks, but below their nose, as did everyone else at the polling station. Again, almost as if it has been the theme of all three voting days in Bihar, they were asked the question. “Is Corona only in this booth and not outside, many people ask us. Nobody wears masks outside. But what can we say, we are only doing our duty,” one of them said.
But if there were at least thermometer checks and gloves in Jogbani, at the Lahtora polling booth, at least fifty kilometers away, there was no semblance of control. The school building that served as the polling booth had no walls, and people entered from everywhere. There were no masks, no social distancing, no gloves, and no sanitisers. A security official, for whom this was the third time he was on polling duty said, “Koi manta hi nahi hai. Bolne ka kya faayda hai?” It was much the same in Hadiyabara polling booth in Araria too.
Back in Jogbani, at the Om Sai Sweet Shop, the first two customers of the day have arrived at 10.30 am. They begin talking about politics, proudly holding up inked fingers. But Sharma has had enough, with the airwaves, his home, and his shop being dominated by talk of the election. “Ab bas. Do din mein pata chal hi jayega. Ab kuch aur baat karein,” he says.