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'Modi is contesting from every seat in this election'

Last updated on: May 09, 2014 16:29 IST

'Modi is contesting from every seat in this election'

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Archana Masih/Rediff.com

'I want to ask Giriraj Singh why should we go to Pakistan jab hum Hindustan ke bashinde hain?'

'This is Modi's only chance to wipe out his past and make a fresh start...'

'This election has been reduced to only one issue -- communalism...'

On the turf of the Modi versus Lalu battleground, Archana Masih/Rediff.com listens to what young Muslims think of Narendra Modi.

Even at the height of the election season, hoardings of coaching classes 'IIT-ians creating IIT-ians'; Lux Cozy and Onn vests advertised by Sunny Deol and Shah Rukh Khan (Do they really wear them, I wonder?) were the few billboards one could see en route from Patna to Saran in North Bihar.

No rousing banners or slogans, no cut outs, no posters of netas with folded hands, rose above rootops. The only billboards visible -- especially near government buildings -- were from the Election Commission, with Bihari television actor Ratan Rajput as brand ambassador, promoting the power of the vote.

The seven constituencies in North Bihar that went to the polls on May 7 are connected to the state capital Patna by a dilapidated 5.5 kilometre-long road bridge over the Ganga.

The bridge is the only link over the river. Before it came about three decades ago, people crossed over on steamers between Pehleja Ghat and Mahendroo Ghat on either side of the river bank.

In more recent times, commuters cross that bridge on a wing and prayer -- both for its precarious condition and traffic jams -- as they await the completion of two new bridges that are under construction.

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Image: The heart of Chhapra town, the district headquarter of Saran, where the RJD's Rabri Devi is fighting the BJP's Rajiv Pratap Rudy.
Photographs: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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On the other side of this precarious bridge are the key constituencies of Hajipur and Saran, where three of this election's most high-profile contestants are in the fray -- Ram Vilas Paswan (an eight-time MP), Rabri Devi (RJD chief Lalu Yadav's wife and three-time chief minister of Bihar) and Rajiv Pratap Rudy (a two-time MP and Union minister).

Paswan holds the record of being the only candidate elected twice with the highest victory margin from Hajipur, a town famous for its banana produce.

Last year -- for the first time in 33 years -- he was defeated by Ram Sunder Das, a former Bihar chief minister. Mr Das at 93 years is once again taking on Paswan, who now heads the Lok Janshakti Party and is an ally of the BJP.

"If Paswanji had Chirag (Paswan's son), why was he roaming with a lalten (the lantern, the RJD's election symbol) all these years?" Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the BJP candidate from Saran, had quipped at a campaign meeting in Chhapra addressed by Narendra Modi.

At least two BJP leaders who took to the microphone before Modi's arrival told the crowd in attendance in the blistering heat that Rudy, Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha, the BJP's other ally in Bihar, would all become Cabinet ministers in the Modi government.

The message being that there would be three Bihari Cabinet ministers in the Modi dispensation.

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Image: A man with a cart of bananas on a Sunday morning in Chhapra.
Photographs: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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'NaMo ne Nitish ke vikas ko tod diya hain'

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Archana Masih/Rediff.com

"Woh Bharat ke sacche sapoot hai (Modi is the true son of Bharat)."

"Yeh desh Modiji ka hone wala hain (This country is going to become Modiji's)..."

In Nayi Bazaar, a Muslim dominated area, near the government hospital in Chhapra, a group of young Muslim men and women are equally confident that Muslims will not support Modi and he won't make it to the post he so dearly covets.

"Is baar Hindustan ke chunao mein har seat par Modi khade hain," says Arif Hussain, pursuing a PhD in psychology. "NaMo ne Nitish ke vikas ko tod diya hain (In this election, Modi is contesting from every seat in the country. His personality has reduced Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's development to shreds)."

"If Arun Jaitley or Sushma Swaraj were PM candidates, 50 per cent Muslims would have supported them. It is because of Modi that people like Giriraj Singh and Ramdev are spewing venom," says Hussain, who will apply for a job as a lecturer in a government college after getting his doctorate.

Hussain feels that existing benefits like scholarships for poor Muslims would be reduced if a Modi sarkar came into being.

For the 10 vacant posts at Jayaprakash University, there will be at least 3,000 applicants, he says. Since there is no private sector -- barring a couple of banks and insurance companies -- government jobs are at a high premium in Chhapra and the rest of Bihar.

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Image: Hindus and Muslims both come to Baba Peera Baba's mazaar.
Photographs: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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Archana Masih/Rediff.com

"I think he will reduce central government funds to Muslim universities like Jamia Millia because of which universities like Jamia will fall in their overall ranking," says Mehar Fatima who joined Jamia after completing her high school in Chhapra and plans to appear for a law college entrance exam.

The group of young Muslim men and women has assembled in her family home and she proudly tells me that her father is a simple man who retired as a peshkar (keeper of the court's records) from the district civil court.

Mehar's sister Sarwat is a doctor who has done a seven-month stint at Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital and will appear for the entrance test for a postgraduate degree soon.

"Modi thinks he has already become PM, but he won't get a majority," quips Dr Sarwat.

The sisters have returned home in Chhapra to study for their respective exams. Their pressing anxiety is not as much the possibility of a Modi government, but reservations in higher education.

"There are 1,600 seats in the Common Law Entrance Test, of which 800 are reserved -- so a person who is from the reserved quota and gets less percentage than me is more likely to get the seat," says Mehar, stressing that the next government should look into this matter that directly affects the country's youth -- Hindus and Muslims alike.

"We are not against reservations, yes those who have been exploited need to be uplifted -- but why continue giving it to those who have already reaped the rewards for decades?" asks Dr Sarwat, pointing out that 500 out of the 1,000 seats for the Bihar medical postgraduate course are reserved.

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Image: Locals read newspapers at Thana Chowk in Chhapra.
Photographs: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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The fight is not between Rabri and Rudy; but Lalu and Modi

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Archana Masih/Rediff.com

Sitting beside them are friends who are attending colleges in Chhapra. One of them, Syeda Kaneez Fatima, says she has not been to the college she is enrolled in even once because classes are not held. She does not even know where it is.

There have been a proliferation of many colleges in the district in the past couple of decades, but students say the two oldest colleges -- Rajendra College and Jagdam College -- are still the best in the entire district.

A retired college professor says the students themselves are not keen to attend college, habituated as they are to passing their exams by openly cheating during examinations.

Over the years, cheating in exams had become so prevalent that relatives used to break into exam centres to provide 'chit-purza' (answers written on sheets of paper) to their wards. This year though, students who sat for the college exams, say it was conducted strictly and a large number of students who were caught cheating were expelled.

Saran with its headquarters in Chhapra is one of Bihar's oldest districts. On the banks of the Saryu also known as the Ghagra river, it has around 200,000 Muslim voters and does not have a history of religious conflict.

Its famous Peer Baba ki Mazaar, sandwiched between the Sadar Hospital and Chhapra jail, is thronged by devotees from both faiths. The shops outside sell both green cloth and saffron threads, the former synonymous with Muslim and the latter, with Hindu prayer rituals.

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Image: The ancient Pachmandir temple.
Photographs: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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'Bihar mein Musalmaan sukoon se hain'

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Archana Masih/Rediff.com

"The BJP will come to power, but Modi won't become PM. Let the results come and people within the BJP who are keeping quiet will start speaking out against him," says Rashid Haider Rizvi, a BSc student, who wears a stole with his shirt and jeans to add a dash of style.

"Har Har Modi is being highlighted, but on the ground nothing like that is happening," says the undergraduate in Science.

Even though Chhapra has its Muslim-dominated areas, there is no ghetto-isation here, you will always find some Hindu homes in Muslims areas, says Rizvi who has many Hindu friends.

"Bihar mein Musalmaan sukoon se hain (Muslims are at peace in Bihar)," says Arif Hussain, the PhD student quoted earlier in this feature.

If the Ram Navami procession, which was taken out with greater belligerence this year, is an indication of what lies ahead, Hussain feels Muslims will have to endure much more under a Modi government.

The youngsters are also extremely upset with state BJP MP Giriraj Singh's statement that those who don't vote for Modi should go to Pakistan. Nothing seems to agitate them more than Singh's incendiary utterance.

"I want to ask Giriraj Singh why should we go to Pakistan jab hum Hindustan ke bashinde hain (we are natives of India)," says Nazish Iman, 24, who has a degree in Arabic from Lucknow and brings the finesse of his learning to his spoken words.

"Mandir, masjid, namaz, roza -- they bring this up only during election. Why don't they talk about issues like providing loans to educated young people, where the sarkar is the guarantor and we pay the interest?" asks Iman.

When politicians like Singh make remarks like this, the Muslim youngsters feel it heightens tension in their friends' circle which comprises both Hindus and Muslims. It encourages their Hindu friends, who would otherwise never say such things, to make sarcastic remarks, sometimes in jest, sometimes in seriousness.

"And that," says Shabih Abbas, an MCom student, "is more hurtful than what Giriraj Singh says. It pierces."

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Image: The RJD's campaign office in Dighwara.
Photographs: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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'People are supporting Modi because they are hungry for change'

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"I have never seen this Hindu versus Muslim polarisation in any election. One of the slogans I've heard is -- 'Modi sarkar lana hain, Musalmano ko bhagana hain (Bring in Modi, Drive out Muslims)'," says Shabih.

"Modi aane se pehele hi itna jhagda kara rahe, toh banne ke baad kya hoga? (There are so many quarrels before Modi becomes PM. What will happen after he becomes PM?)" asks Syeda Kaneez who sits alongside the more vocal sisters pursuing their education in Delhi.

"Modi will not be good for minorities," feels says Shabzeen Fatima, 22, who is married and has moved to Hyderabad, but has come home for the holidays.

Shabzeen now wears a hijab. She did not wear one as an unmarried girl in Chhapra, but took to wearing it in Hyderabad because most Muslim women in that city did so.

"I like wearing it," she says. Her cousin, Marya Hasan, who accompanies her, is pursuing a BA through a correspondence from the Indira Gandhi National Open University. She doesn't wear a veil and says no one in her family wears a burqa.

Muslim women in burqa are an exception rather than the rule in Chhapra. The young women I spoke to say they are accompanied by their khala (aunt) on shopping trips and have to be back home by magreb ki namaz (the evening prayer).

"The town does not have decent movie halls or malls we can go to. And more than our parents, it is the mohalle-wale (people in the neighbourbhood) who will say they saw us roaming here or there," laughs Dr Sarwat, who moved out of Chhapra several years ago to pursue Medicine and is disappointed she could not vote because she couldn't register her name on the voters list.

"People are supporting Modi because they are hungry for change. We are willing to believe him when he says 'Acche din aaney wale hain (Good days are coming)', but when Giriraj Singh made that statement, what are we minorities supposed to feel?" asks Marya, who wants to join the private banking sector.

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Image: People at a tea shop near Dighwara.
Photographs: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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Lalu says he will stop Modi's advance in Bihar

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Many in the group are too young and some were not even born when the Babri Masjid was demolished, an event that marked a turning point in Hindu-Muslim relations in the country.

Bihar, where Lalu Yadav stopped L K Advani's rath yatra in 1990 -- an act that he says he will repeat by stopping Modi's advance -- has largely been free from sectarian strife.

Yet many Muslims feel they have not seen such polarisation even at the height of the Mandir movement. They don't fear a spurt in Hindu-Muslim violence, they say, but what they fear more is people like Giriraj Singh and Ramdev getting a free run if Modi came to power.

"Modi is a front for the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). They have realised they cannot win power with the support of the upper castes alone, so they have brought Modi in front to get the votes of the backward castes," says Shahzad, a government school teacher.

"They have seen two examples, one from the past and one from the present -- Kalyan Singh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan -- especially Chouhan, a backward leader, who has won three terms as Madhya Pradesh chief minister," Shahzad adds.

The agreed view among Muslims in Saran is that they will vote for the RJD candidate Rabri Devi. The vote is not for Rabri Devi, but for her husband Lalu Yadav, who has been debarred from contesting this election after his conviction in the fodder scam.

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Image: A government school in Terraiya, Bihar
Photographs: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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'This election has been reduced to only one issue -- communalism'

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Archana Masih/Rediff.com

Lalu's conviction or the fact that he served time in jail and is out on bail, is hardly an issue. They see him as a bulwark against Modi and that is all that matters at this time.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar broke his Janata Dal-United's 17-year-old alliance with the BJP last year in response to Modi's candidature, and has given reservations to Muslims from the extremely backward castes -- but he hasn't found much favour with the Muslims this election.

His candidate in Saran, Salim Parvez, is fighting a losing battle even though he lives in Chhapra, as opposed to Rabri Devi and Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who are seen as outsiders.

"Muslims have realised that they have to vote for Lalu if they want to defeat Modi. They feel Lalu is boldly challenging Modi," says Shahzad.

Lalu Yadav represented Chhapra four times in Parliament. He does not even have an MP office in town, in case his constituents want to reach him, but there is praise for his work as railway minister.

He is holding on to his Muslims-Yadav vote bank and people laud him for making Chhapra an important rail head and initiating a rail wheel factory, which was founded several years ago but is yet to start production.

"With the split of the BJP-JD-U, the opponent (Nitish) is weak -- and Lalu has been able to make space. Moreover, the JD-U doesn't have a committed social base," says Professor Prabhat Ghosh of the Asian Development Research Institute, a think-tank in Patna.

"Apart from the Yadavs and Muslims, many others in the middle category have some feeling for the RJD because for the first time in Bihar the traditional elite were marginalised by Lalu Prasad. Those who were nobodies became somebodies after Lalu," adds Professor Ghosh, who feels it is unfortunate that a performing government like Nitish Kumar's government will in all likelihood be placed third in this general election.

Lalu's conviction in the fodder scam does not seem to have dented his popularity or his image. The RJD leader is expected to improve his dismal tally of 4 Lok Sabha seats from the 2009 election.

"Corruption is not an issue anywhere in the country," says Shahzad, "This election has been reduced to only one issue -- communalism."

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Image: The rail wheel factory is a project initiated when Lalu Yadav was railway minister. Production is yet to commence.
Photographs: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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'Corruption is not an issue anywhere in this election'

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Elsewhere in Chhapra, the only Dawoodi Bohra family in town -- one of 40 Bohra homes in the whole of Bihar -- is ready to go to Surat for the summer holidays. There is no Dawoodi Bohra mosque in Saran, so the family travels to Patna, 80 kms away, on special occasions.

With most of the extended family in Gujarat, the family feels Modi has developed Gujarat.

"Gujarat is a small state, let us see if Modi can replicate it in the whole of India," says Ajab Patel, a young married woman, who wears the colourful Bohri burqa called 'Rida'. She has 60 of them, she says, which she orders from Gujarat.

"If he brings improvement, I am willing to give him a chance," she says, "This is his only chance to wipe out his past and make a fresh start."


Image: Lalu Yadav, who has represented Chhapra for four terms, is credited for making the town
Photographs: Archana Masih/Rediff.com

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