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September 14, 1999


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Constituency/ Ara

Ranvir Sena man joins the fray, may muddy the pool

Tara Shankar Sahay

You beckon an old man, Vishwanath, repairing the highway running through Gidha village, 9 km from Ara town. You have already driven through from Patna, braving crater-sized potholes and innumerable diversions which have jarred every bone in your body. While you wonder whether the roads in Bihar have ever been repaired since Independence, the old man approaches you.

You ask him which party he will vote for, and naked apprehension jumps in his eyes. You reassure him you are not a babu, but a patrakar(journalist) covering the election. He relaxes somewhat at this. "Abhi soncha nahin hai, abhi samay baki hai," (I haven't thought about it, there is still time). You insist that people will soon have to go to the ballot box but others in the workforce join the chorus: Abhi soncha nahin hai.

Voter fatigue? Could be. Fact is, there is indifference among the residents of the constituency, The onset of elections in mofussil Indian towns -- like Ara -- ushers in all the excitement, all the fanfare and tamasha, none of which is evident here.

In the narrow, congested confines of Madan Ka Hata near Dr Isa's clinic, a group of young men are gossiping. Where are the jeeps, the banners, the party flags, the sloganeering, you ask. "What is the hurry, the campaign will pick up," insists Raju Singh, a young fruit-seller. You point out that last year, the campaign had started quite early. Pat comes the fruit-seller's reply: " Baar baar vote dene ke chakkar se log thak jaate hain" (the people tire of repeated voting).

With election activity virtually non-existent in most parts of the constituency, you proceed to the Janata Dal-United office. The air of lethargy is striking. People are either sitting or sleeping on a dhurry. Nand Lal Singh, an activist of the Dalit Sena and JD-U, is among them. Roused from deep slumber, he takes time to gather his wits. He will come back after washing his face, he says.

Nand Lal is almost apologetic about the lack of election fever in Ara. He points to the jeeps neatly parked in the party office premises, saying they will be rolling out to campaign in a couple of days. "You can't blame the people, they are tired of elections," he chants the familiar BJP-JD-U line. He is quick to add that Prime Minister A B Vajpayee's whirlwind Bihar tour has generated much enthusiasm among the constituents of the National Democratic Alliance.

You ask him what the electoral equation is in the constituency. He repeats his party line that the JD-U candidate, the Samata Party's H D Singh, will win by a large margin. In 1998 Singh had won by 200,000-plus votes, trouncing his Rashtriya Janata Dal rival.

Another JD-U worker, not wanting to be named, points out that although the main tussle is between the JD-U and RJD candidates, there are others in the fray including the formerly outlawed CPI-ML, and, hold your breath, a candidate of the Ranvir Sena.

He points out that the Ara-Bhojpur belt has long been afflicted with extremist violence and retaliatory attacks by the landlord-supported Ranvir Sena which comprises mostly wealthy Bhumihar landlords who want to counter the extremist factor which threatens to overpower them. So far, the local authorities say, the town has been peaceful and they intend to keep it that way.

Amarnath Pathak, a local political observer, says the JD-U candidate might not sail through easily this time round because of RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav's political intrigues. Pathak points out that since the RJD (supported by the Congress) knows it is on a weak wicket in Ara, Laloo has utilised his links with the Ranvir Sena to thwart the designs of his BJP-JD-U foes.

Pathak alleges that according to Laloo's logic, the Ranvir Sena candidate will split the Bhumihar votes which traditionally go to the Samata Party and BJP. Thus, if a sizeable chunk of Bhumihar votes goes to the Ranvir Sena candidate, the JD-U candidate could be felled.

If this were to happen, the Koeri and Kurmi votes in Ara, normally claimed by the Samata Party would not go to the JD-U, but to the CPI-ML, say observers.

Last year, the CPI-ML candidate got 165,000 votes and RJD leaders here freely admit it is their cherished desire to see the BJP-supported JD-U candidate bite the dust. "You can rest assured that if a large slice of the Bhumihar votes go to the Ranvir Sena candidate, the Koeris and Kurmis will vote for the CPI-ML candidate," says Debiprasad Yadav, a local RJD worker. He indicates that Laloo prefers the CPI-ML candidate Rameshwar Prasad as the "surprise winner from Ara".

The RJD's prospects in Ara have been compounded with allegations surfacing that the RJD chief deliberately denied a party ticket to Ramlakhan Singh Yadav, a senior party leader. Consequently, Ramlakhan Singh Yadav along with his followers is supporting the JD-Secular candidate.

The RJD's Debiprasad Yadav also points out that a large number of Muslims, who usually side with Laloo, are angry with him as he has denied many of them important posts in the party and in the Rabri Devi government. Local Muslim leader Professor Tajuddin Ansari, in a bid to embarrass the RJD chief, has called upon his community members not to vote for the RJD, party workers say.

Determined to give a tough fight to the other contestants, the CPI-ML has started its campaign on a high note in the Sandesh and Sahar assembly segments of the Ara parliamentary seat. "Saheb, go to Belaur, you can gauge the CPI-ML's support," advises an autorickshaw driver.

You follow this advice and head for Belaur, 30 km further from Ara. Then you brace yourself to meet the familiar challenge -- more potholes, broken roads, more diversions, more headache. The car slows to a crawl. Your patience runs thin and you shout at the driver to get a move on and jettison the snail's pace. "Sorry saheb, can't do, the car will come apart," he apologises with a weak smile.

An hour later, you see tiny red flags embedded on the mud in the lush, yellowish-green paddy fields. Naked children wave red flags at each other, chortling in delight, their bodies caked in mud. They also shout Communist slogans. You know you are in Male (pronounced Ma-ley, for the first syllables of Marxist-Leninist) country.

Next to the ramshackle high school, a rostrum is being constructed for the party leaders to address the Mahasabha. Sarjoo, a middle-aged party activist, inquires the purpose of your visit. You name it and he greets you with a smile. "Yahan Male ka raaj chalta hai " (it's Male rule here) Sarjoo says. The local villagers worship the party because it has given them basic developmental necessities like tubewell, metal roads etc. Clenching his fist, Sarjoo shouts 'Male zindabad', and others follow as if by an unseen command.

You talk to the assembled people. They tell you the Male has a good chance of winning because it is their party and they will vote for it. " Baki sub bekar hain, hum Male ko vote denge," shouts Kunti Devi, a young woman.

CPI-ML candidate Rameshwar Prasad underlines the party's achievements during the past decade, The crowd responds with shouts of 'Lal Salaam' and prolonged clapping. He urges them to ensure his victory because he has to continue the unfinished tasks, Rameshwar Prasad points out. He ends his speech with a quote from the late party leader Vinod Mishra. "Hum phir milenge saathiyon, sunghursh ke toofan mein" (we will meet again comrades in the storm of struggle). The crowd goes berserk.

Sitting in the party office in Goomti, Ara, CPI-ML general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya exhorts his party workers to prepare for the challenge ahead. Jeeps festooned with red flags and banners are about to fan out among the people to campaign for the party candidate. In between, he is ready to answer this correspondent's question. What does he think about the presence of the Ranvir Sena candidate in the fray?

"The Ranvir Sena is in cahoots with the BJP as well as the RJD. They have their own devious reasons for propping up the Sena candidate," Bhattacharya says.

How does his party plan to counter the Ranvir Sena?

"The people know what we have done and what we are doing. Our MLAs belonging to Sahar and Sandesh have delivered the goods in spite of opposition from the government. Our supporters are aware of this," he says, adding that the RJD has only been doling out empty promises to the people.

Daily wage-earners like Vishwanath say they feel betrayed by the RJD's unfulfilled promises. "Look saheb, rice is selling at Rs 30, 40 a kg, how are we going to survive, can Lalooji and Rabri Devi help us anymore," asks the road construction worker.


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