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September 22, 1999


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Constituency/ Patna

Pot-holed roads to Parliament

Soroor Ahmed in Patna

The road I am on -- one leading to the upcoming colony of Sanichra, near the Bazar Samiti's fruit and vegetable market -- is, as per a wayside plaque, credited to Inder Kumar Gujral. Who apparently had it laid, out of his MP fund for constituency development, in 1995.

If one of Gujral's friends happened to travel by that road, he would immediately call the man up and get him to remove that plaque, ASAP. You don't, if you are wise, advertise that you are responsible for what prima facie appears to be a particularly poxed surface of the moon.

Roads and politics share a symbiotic relationship, if it is the Patna parliamentary constituency you are talking about. In the last five years, scores of roads, of varying length, breadth and quality, have been laid, as part of an effort orchestrated by former chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav to give the state capital a face-lift ahead of the December 1995 NRI conference.

A lot of roads were constructed courtesy the MP's funds allocated to Rajya Sabha member and Rashtriya Janata Dal working president Dr Ranjan Prasad Yadav. Some of those roads were in fact path-breaking, going where no road had gone before simply because the concerned authorities apparently couldn't be bothered. Sanchira Road, Gujral's contribution to the cause of taking the NRIs on a ride, remains in a shambles despite the best efforts of the locals to interest sundry politicians in their plight.

Road-building, locals say, puts a politician on the highway of higher office. And just incidentally, feathers a lot of nests. "Mr Yadav is an astute politician," says social scientist Shashi Bhushan. "He gives contracts for road and park construction to members of his caste, for obvious reasons, then gets plaques constructed beside the roads to give himself publicity."

Rupesh, who runs an NGO, counters by pointing out that Yadav should be appreciated for at least getting roads built, irrespective of his motives.

Such things are contagious -- local Lok Sabha MP Ram Kripal Yadav of the RJD also got a few roads built, out of his own funds. Perhaps because the roads were ill-constructed, perhaps due to other reasons, Ram Kripal Yadav lost to the BJP's Dr C P Thakur in the last election.

Thakur, figuring that following precedent was preferable to striking out on a bold new path, promptly got into the road-building act on his own account. And cinestar and Rajya Sabha MP Shatrughan Sinha chipped in with a couple of his own.

Lots of roads, ditto self-congratulatory plaques. Suddenly, the citizens of Patna were spoilt for choice.

It's election time again, and here, in a city where people are familiar with "basic amenities" only through rumour and hearsay, roads are an issue yet again. Those areas that have them complain of their condition, those areas where they don't as yet exist complain of lack of roads -- and show every indication of taking out their ire on the nearest available politician.

Retired government official Mohammad Irfan epitomises local ire when he complains that BJP MP C P Thakur got the Musallahpur Haat road built only partially, because he wasn't too bothered about that part of the locality where Muslims live in numbers. "What type of discrimination is this?" he asks heatedly. "If you do not vote your road won't be constructed?"

Upendra Kumar, who runs a school in Noorani Bagh, blames former RJD MP Ram Kripal Yadav, now standing for re-election. Yadav, Kumar argues, built roads only in Muslim and Yadav dominated areas, with an eye to votes, while other regions suffered neglect. "Look at the deplorable condition of our area," he says, waving a hand around. "Filth and water-logging has become the order of the day." I look -- for aesthetic reasons, limiting myself to a very quick glance.

RJD party workers put their own querulous spin to the whole question. "See," explains party worker Dr Brajnandan Yadav, "our MPs got roads, parks and roundabouts constructed in the posh localities dominated by the educated upper caste people, but none of them vote for our candidates as we are Yadavs. This reflects their casteist bend of mind. They don't recognise the good work done for them by our party."

It goes without saying that despite all the talk of roads and other issues, it is ultimately caste that decides electoral outcomes in this urban constituency. Yadavs, the upper class Kayasthas, and the backward caste Kahars (palanquin-bearers) dominate the constituency, which also has sizeable pockets of Dalit, Kurmi, Koeri, Bhumihar and Muslim voters.

RJD candidate Ram Kripal Yadav has won this seat twice before -- a by-election in 1993, then the regular one in 1996. His BJP opponent and sitting MP, physician and Padma Shri Dr C P Thakur -- a Bhumihar -- has also held the seat, first in 1984 on a Congress ticket, and then in 1998 on the BJP ticket.

Factor X in the equation is Professor Ramanand Yadav, Independent. A person of some influence in the city, his presence is expected to cut into both the BJP and RJD votes -- and it is anyone's guess, analysts say, which of the two mainline parties will be the harder hit. A former MLA, Yadav threw his hat in the ring out of pure pique -- he had tried for the RJD ticket and was overlooked, this despite being an old friend, right from schooldays, of party supremo Laloo Yadav.

To add to the merry mix, there is Laloo Yadav's nephew Nagendra Rai -- subject of much notoriety last June when he misbehaved with the ADM (Law and Order), forcing the Bihar Administrative Service Association to launch a stir. Rai, a Delhi University drop-out, is associated with the social organisation run by Nirmala Deshpande and claims to have worked in the Bollywood pot-boiler Pyar Mangta Hai Qurbani. His grouse is not so much against his uncle as against Laloo's brothers-in-law, who he says have kept him from getting his due share of the family political pie.

The major candidates, Dr Thakur and Ram Kripal Yadav, have their share of headaches. Upper caste Kayasthas are up in arms against the BJP, alleging that their claims have been ignored when distributing tickets, and pointing out that their candidate is a Bhumihar and, worse, a lapsed Congressman. In fact, Shatrughan Sinha had, last year, openly expressed his displeasure when Dr Thakur got the ticket last year, perhaps because his wife Poonam was in the running for a BJP ticket.

So score one, here, for RJD's Ram Kripal. Kayasthas are not expected to vote against the BJP, but they are definitely unenthusiastic, and this could impact on voter turnout in their strongholds.

Ram Kripal's problem, meanwhile, is that he hasn't quite clicked with the "social justice" plank. A sizeable segment of Kahars, Nishads and Kewats -- all backward castes -- are up in arms, arguing that Yadavs are a domineering, overbearing bunch who tend to ride roughshod over them. This segment has been vowing to back the BJP, which could to some extent offset Kayastha apathy.

The trick for Ram Kripal is to smooth over the hurt feelings of this segment in a hurry. One thing for sure, building roads doesn't in itself put you on the road to Parliament -- vide the example of Laloo Yadav himself.

In the 1995 general election, Laloo Yadav contested and won both Danapur and Raghopur, under the Patna and Hajipur parliamentary constituencies, respectively. Laloo gave up the Danapur seat, but very quickly fulfilled his promise to get a pontoon bridge built over the Ganga in that region. In the subsequent by-election for the seat he had vacated, the RJD fielded Ramanand Yadav (who is now contesting here as an Independent), and banked heavily on the PR value of the bridge.

Ramanand Yadav lost.

Bottomline, it is back to the old staples of caste line-ups, of loyalties and perceived grouses -- amorphous commodities, impossible to quantify and base a prediction on.

One thought, though, prompted by my trip down Gujral's Sanchira Road -- road-building might not win you votes, but poor road-building can cost you a sizeable chunk of support.


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