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September 20, 1999


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RJD makes Paswan slog to retain Hajipur

Soroor Ahmed in Hajipur

Ram Vilas Paswan is confident of railroading through the election this time. After all, he's done a lot for Hajipur when he was Union railway minister. Yet he finds it hard to answer a simple question: Should he not be held responsible for the sheer waste of Rs 12,000 million on the election process? Why could he not abstain from voting on the no-confidence motion that toppled Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the same man whose praises he now sings tirelessly.

Paswan skirts the issue when the question is put to him on the campaign trail. "My party had not taken a decision till then," he replies and quickly turns to wave at the crowds lining the road. A few furlongs further, he alights from his vehicle to address a street-corner meeting. "Rajniti mein bahut kuch hota rahta hai," he tells the people. "Aap log hamara saath dein jaise pehle diya tha taki constituency develop kare. (In the rough and tumble of politics things change rapidly. Please continue to support me for the development of the region.)" The tone and tenor suggest what he wants to clarify.

The Hajipur reserved seat is witnessing a battle among three Rams: Ram Vilas Paswan of the Janata Dal (United), Ramai Ram of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and former Bihar chief minister Ram Sundar Das of Chandrashekhar's Samajwadi Janata Party. And the voters appear inclined towards the first Ram.

But Paswan, who declared that he had won the election as soon as he filed his nomination and only needs to collect a certificate to that effect from the returning officer, is now literally running for votes as the RJD nominee is putting up a stiff fight.

Ramai Ram, who is Bihar's land revenue minister, has adopted a unique style of campaigning. "He touches the feet of every voter he meets, beseeching them to vote for him. This naturally softens even his bitterest critics and womenfolk are quite appreciative of his gesture," says Gurudayal Shashtri of Mahua.

But Bechan Bhagat, a PHED employee, is more honest and says, "He did nothing for common folk like us, yet we will vote for him. We want nothing. Just that he should be our leader." 'Our' refers to the community -- dalits.

While Jandaha and Hajipur segments seem to favour the former railway minister, the Paswan wave of 1996 and 1998 appears to be receding in Mahua and Raghopur.

The electorate in Hajipur Lok Sabha constituency has 25 per cent Yadavs, besides a sizeable population of Dalits -- both Paswans and Chamars -- Rajputs, Bhumihars, Koeris, Nishads and Muslims. But Dr Kailash Singh, an ardent RJD supporter, says that this time the Muslims and Koeris will switch to Ramai Ram as will Bhumihar voters who are angry that Paswan has "cheated" many local youths in the name of offering jobs. "We are king-makers as well as king-breakers," he quips.

Hajipur stands apart from the rest of Bihar. Unlike elsewhere, development is a serious electoral issue here. Caste, no doubt, casts its spell, but a sizeable section is also looking beyond it.

Even Muslims and Yadavs in areas dominated by Paswans or the upper castes are singing paeans to Paswan. Says Dilip Kumar Yadav: "We will vote for him because he got a stadium built here." Badr-e-Alam, a retired agriculture department employee of Larooi Hussainabad, is more cautious in his praise of Paswan, but confesses that he too may vote for the JD-U politician as he is the better known candidate.

Alam says neither the state government nor Paswan has done anything for the Jagdishpur panchayat. Not a single Harijan house under the Indira Awas Yojana [Indira Housing Scheme] has been built here. Neither has Paswan fulfilled his promise of donating Rs 100,000 to the local madarsa (Muslim theology school) or replacing a burnt out transformer.

Muslims and Yadavs living elsewhere are, however, not so favourably inclined towards Paswan. The Yadavs, in particular, seem to be much more anti-Paswan, as are some non-Paswan dalits.

"As railway minister Paswan gave us appointment letters which later turned out to be fake," shouted Shiv Kumar Yadav in the RJD election office in Hajipur. Shiv Kumar said he had voted for Paswan last time in the hope of getting a job, "but now I am out to see him defeated".

Shatrughan Prasad Singh, an elderly Rajput of Barathi village, said Ram Sunder Das had done far more for Hajipur in one term as member of Parliament from 1991 to 1995 than Paswan who has been elected five times since 1977. "But we will still vote for him because we want a strong Centre," he says.

Among the works for which Paswan is claiming credit is the establishment of a zonal railway office in Hajipur in 1997. Built in a record 11 months, this huge building is testimony to how easily politicians hoodwink the masses.

Railway officials say Hajipur was never thought suitable for a zonal office since it does not generate much income. Unlike the Howrah-Delhi Grand Chord, very few goods trains pass through Hajipur. Besides, a zonal office should have at least four railway divisions. But Hajipur has just two: Sonepur and Samastipur. There was a plan to include Danapur and Katihar, but was dropped as unfeasible. So the Hajipur office has only maintenance and no operational value. And rumours are rife that the building will ultimately be converted into a heart hospital.

The officials say Paswan was aware that the zonal office would not serve any real purpose, yet he went ahead with the project. And his successor, Nitish Kumar, did not take keen interest in it, leading to the work being shelved mid-way. Though ardent Paswan loyalists insist it will see the light of day, the fact remains completion of the entire project will need massive investment for infrastructure and even staff quarters.

Paswan and his supporters are blaming the non-completion of the zonal office on RJD president Laloo Prasad Yadav and his wife, Chief Minister Rabri Devi. He certainly cannot blame Nitish Kumar since both are in the same party now. And voters like Brahmdeo Paswan still hope that if Paswan wins, he will be the natural choice for railway minister and the work will be completed soon.

As Ram Sunder Das, Paswan's rival, complains, some people are willing to believe any promise, even if it cannot be fulfilled. He says Paswan took a series of populist decisions only to boost his own image. "Have you ever heard of a Union minister attending the inauguration of some survey work? Paswan did so. He was here to attend with much pomp and show the start of the survey for laying the rail track to Mahua and a bridge over the Ganga. Though these projects never came up, he got publicity," Das says.


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