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September 18, 1999


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Nitish Kumar's tightrope walk

Soroor Ahmed

Its very name suggests the topography of this constituency. A narrow strip of land 90 kilometres long and 15 to 16 kilometres wide along river Ganga's southern bank, more than half of Barh remains water-logged for well over four-months. In local parlance this huge chunk of low-lying area is known as tal and normally only one crop of masoor is grown here.

Apart from the tal there are several habitable diara areas too and the two are the hotbed of politics and crime. The erosion of agriculture land by the Ganga often leads to land disputes and the consequent bloodbaths.

The constituency's western boundary almost touches the eastern suburbs of Patna. National Highway 30 runs parallel to the Ganga. At places the river almost kisses the road and often during the monsoons flood waters submerge the road.

Barh is former railway minister Nitish Kumar's constituency. It is both a source of strength and trouble for him. His roots are here. His brother is a vaidya in Bakhtiarpur township which he often visits. His ancestral village Kalyanbigha also falls within the tal area of the constituency.

But he seldom wins an election here comfortably. The last time he just scraped through by 15,170 votes. This time his friend and political rival Vijay Krishna is going all out to stall his entry into Parliament.

Nitish Kumar's misfortune is that the caste equation in Barh is loaded heavily against him. With the Kurmis and Yadavs forming the bulk of the population, followed by the Harijans, Rajputs, Bhumihars, Koeris, Other Backward Castes and a sprinkling of Muslims, he has always had to do a lot of tightrope walking in his constituency.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal nominee and minister in the Rabri Devi cabinet, Vijay Krishna, is a Rajput who can also count on the support of the Yadavs and other weaker sections apart from that of his caste. In 1998 this arithmetic did not work simply because the Rajputs were in two minds.

Not so this time. "The Rajputs are incensed over Nitish Kumar's attitude. As a minister he ignored them. This time they are united against him," Satish Kumar Singh of Fatuha claimed. An old friend of Nitish Kumar since his student days, Vijay Krishna enjoys the reputation of being a son of the soil.

Nitish Kumar is well aware of his handicap. A couple of days after his resignation following the August 2 train accident near Gaisal he expressed unwillingness to contest the election this time. Rumours also began to do the rounds that Defence Minister George Fernandes would shift from Nalanda to Muzaffarpur, his old constituency.

Political observers feel Nitish Kumar's supporters were responsible for this speculation because they wanted the senior Samata Party leader to leave the overwhelmingly Kurmi-dominated Nalanda for their candidate. But the gambit failed and Nitish Kumar appears to be back to square one.

The engineer-turned-politician is busy these days with social engineering. He has sought Sharad Yadav's help to soften the Yadav community in its antagonism towards him. On September 15, Sharad Yadav and Tanvir Hassan addressed more than half-a-dozen meetings in Yadav-dominated villages on National Highway 30.

Curiously, Nitish Kumar kept himself away from the campaign, compelling Parman Kumar of Ishopur to comment: "Arey yeh to bena dulhe ki barat hai (This is a marriage party without the bridegroom). The turnout was dismal, with hardly 250 to 300 people gathering in Bakhtiapur market in Nitish Kumar's hometown.

While Sharad Yadav was touring the Yadav-dominated belt of Barh his bete noire, RJD boss Laloo Prasad Yadav, was in Kurmistan, another assembly segment only 15 kilometres away. The purpose was to make some dent in the Kurmi and Paswan votebanks.

Laloo brandished the latest editions of India Today and Outlook which speak of heavy and unnecessary Indian casualties in the Kargil conflict. ''See India Today is not our magazine. It always stands against the forces of social justice, yet see what it writes," Laloo thunders at meeting after meeting.

In contrast to Sharad Yadav's drab campaign, the RJD leader has attracted huge crowds even in small townships. True, here and there one could hear people in this Kurmi-belt hurling the choicest abuses at him.

Nitish Kumar's problem is that the situation today is different from the last election, when he managed to lure some Yadavs to his side. Actually, a handful of Kurmis supporting Vijay Krishna could make all the difference. The scene has changed in favour of the RJD candidate since the last poll. Bijendra Yadav, the Janata Dal MLA from Bakhtiarpur, who walked away with about 40,000 votes in 1998, is now in the RJD camp and a minister in the Rabri government.

The Kurmis are sore with Nitish Kumar for failing to get the Tal Area Development Project for the drainage of water implemented, notwithstanding repeated assurances and promises. Moreover, he is yet to put his ancestral village on the road map of the state though it is only five kilometres off the Patna-Ranchi road.

Despite all these factors, the Kurmis seem to have made up their mind to swim or sink with Nitish Kumar. They know his importance and remember only too well that the Samata Party broke away from the Janata Dal in 1994 as the Kurmi-Koeri alternative to the Yadavs.

Nitish Kumar roped in the Bhumihar Congress leader of his constituency, Shyam Sunder Singh Dheeraj, and succeeded in allotting him a ticket from neighbouring Begusarai. This led to the resignation of state Janata Dal-United president Ram Jiwan Singh, also a Bhumihar, who wanted to contest the election from Begusarai. However, the JD-U leadership managed to assuage Singh's feelings and gave him a ticket from Ballia.

The RJD is staking everything to defeat Nitish Kumar. Its candidate may have a visible edge now, but a last-minute switch of Rajput voters towards the JD-U cannot be ruled out. September 25 is still a week away and Nitish Kumar can always build bridges with the Rajputs.


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