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|February 19, 1998|
Caste, not anti-Laloo wave, will help Nitish Kumar
The two top Samata Party leaders -- George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar -- who spearheaded a four-year-long relentless campaign against the alleged corruption of then Bihar chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav -- are expected to sail smoothly in the February 22 election. And it is not because the issues raised by them have found acceptance among the people of the area but because the caste divisions are loaded in their favour.
A round of the Barh and the adjoining Nalanda Lok Sabha constituencies, where Kumar and Fernandes are in the contest, reveal the solid support they could garner among the dominant Kurmi-Keori community, giving them a headstart over their Rashtriya Janata Dal rivals.
While Nitish Kumar won by 67,000 votes, Fernandes defeated his nearest rival by over 150,000 votes in 1996. However, the widely held view is that this time, both men cannot expect similar margins. The charge against both leaders is that they have neglected their constituencies during the last year.
While the Rs 9.5 billion fodder scam controversy against Laloo Yadav has cut some ice with the literate and upper castes, the Yadavs and Muslims continue to back the RJD in both constituencies. Arun Kumar Yadav, an unemployed graduate, said major criminals manage to go scotfree while petty thieves languish in jails.
Another Yadav of Atmal Golah village near Barh, who sought anonymity, said West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu is an "imandar neta" (honest leader) but there are corruption charges against his government too. He was implying that unless proven in a court of law, Laloo Yadav should be seen as innocent.
The corruption issue, however, found ready acceptance among the Bhumihars and the Brahmins who insist that the RJD government should be dismissed and President's rule clamped in the state.
Radha Raman Prasad Singh of Dehaud village said people were sick and tired of the corrupt and inefficient Laloo regime. "This time the RJD will hardly secure 10 to 12 Lok Sabha seats. There will be a BJP government at the Centre which will dismiss the Bihar government," he said. Singh's view is shared by a large section of the Bhumihars.
While Nitish Kumar is expected to secure the support of a considerable section of 350,000 Kurmi-Keori voters and 200,000 Bhumihars, his RJD rival, Bihar minister for Minor Irrigation Vijaikrishna is banking on the 200,000 Yadavs and 50,000 Muslim voters.
The RJD has fielded Vijai Krishna, a Rajput, keeping in mind 150,000 voters of his community in the constituency and a Kurmi candidate at Nalanda. Krishna, also the sitting MLA from Barh, has implemented several welfare schemes, which has endeared him to the people. His supporters expect a substantial number of Rajputs to vote for him.
The Samata Party decided not to field a candidate against Railway Minister Ram Vilas Paswan at Hajipur in return for the support of the Paswan community who number around 50,000 in Barh.
Besides, the Janata Dal has fielded a Yadav candidate, Brij Nandan Yadav, who is expected to cut into the RJD candidate's Yadav votebank.
The main local issue being discussed is the rise in crime in the area, which has forced about a hundred businessmen to seek fortunes in Haryana and Punjab. Kidnapping and murders have become routine and the administration has failed to curb the menace. In Barh town, 150 cases of kidnapping and 100 murders have occurred during the last five years.
In the adjoining Nalanda constituency, Fernandes is expected to get the support from a majority of Kurmi-Keori and Bhumihars while his RJD rival is depending on the Yadavs and Muslims, who are far less in number. The CPI and the Indian People's Front, who have also put up candidates, are not in the reckoning.
Nitish Kumar had indicated that his party would not campaign jointly with the BJP this time, considering that serious differences persist between them on policy issues. The Samata stalwart, however, addressed joint meetings with BJP prime ministerial candidate A B Vajpayee at Mokama and shared the dais with film actor Shatrughan Sinha at Barh a few days back.
Former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, who campaigned for the RJD candidate, attracted poor crowd at Barh. Locals say Shekhar, who was brought to Barh with a view to swinging the Rajput votes to the RJD's favour, had a modest audience of around 2,000.
People of Barh and Nalanda complain that both MPs failed to utilise the Rs 10 million earmarked for them to develop the constituency.
Both candidates are certain of winning. "I don't go to Barh these days and have left it to the people to decide,'' Nitish Kumar told this reporter, brimming with confidence.
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