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February 20, 1998


Campaign Trail/Shaji Joseph

After Madhepura, Laloo plans Paswan's ruin

In one way, it's a good thing that elections are as frequent as they are -- Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Laloo Prasad Yadav gets to test his 'caste-based political prestige' at different venues with a frequency that wouldn't be possible if each Lok Sabha served out its full term.

In 1996, thus, Laloo Yadav staked his 'prestige' at Nalanda and Barh -- and lost it in an unsuccessful bid to stall the victory of Samata Party stalwarts George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar.

This time, the litmus test Laloo has chosen for his 'prestige' is Madhepura, where he locks horns with friend turned arch rival Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal.

But then, Laloo has so much 'prestige' in stock that not content with this, he is also staking the selfsame commodity at Hajipur, where another friend turned antagonist Ram Vilas Paswan, the high profile railway minister, is the JD candidate opposing the RJD-backed Samajwadi Janata Party nominee and former Bihar chief minister Ram Sunder Das.

As far as Madhepura goes, the roulette wheel is already spinning, with the polling, and its attended controversies, having taken place on Monday February 16.

So now the RJD cadres are going flat out to try and fulfill Laloo's vow that Paswan would lost by over 500,000 votes.

The Hajipur campaign is not without its share of irony. Paswan made it to the Guinness Book of World Records in 1989 when he won the seat with a margin of 470,000 votes. He was since upstaged by P V Narasimha Rao, who took the Nandyal Lok Sabha seat by over 500,000 votes. This time, Rao has been denied a ticket, and Paswan is not sure of retaining his seat, never mind repeating his mammoth win. So who said politics is not the ultimate leveller?

The last time round, of course, Laloo Prasad had thrown himself, heart, soul and storm-troopers, into ensuring Paswan's win against the same opponent. This ime, it is Das who is getting the full benefit of the Laloo method of electioneering -- a political hairpin bend that doesn't appear to have given the RJD strongman any qualms whatsoever.

So high are the stakes in Hajipur that Laloo Yadav kicked off his own campaign, and that of his RJD, from that constituency. And despite being caught up in a hectic struggle at Madhepura, Laloo still found time to address as many as five election meetings at Hajipur.

"Ram Vilas jaise gaddar ko 5 lakh votes se haranaa hai (a traitor like Ram Vilas should be defeated by five lakh votes)," is the message Laloo has been repeatedly drumming into the voters's collective head -- and he has made no secret of the fact that he will consider it a personal defeat if he has to settle for less.

The key to the equation is the 350,000-odd voters belonging to the Yadav community, which still regards Laloo Yadav as its hero.

What does this mean in real terms? Ask Sorju Yadav of Bidupur, proud owner of one bullock-cart that helps support himself and his family just above the Plimsoll Line of absolute poverty. "I will vote for Dasji because I am a Yadav and Dasji is Lalooji's nominee."

But isn't 'Lalooji' himself tainted by scams? The question brings a heated response: "Laloo ne akele paisa nahin khaya, sab khaya hai (Laloo alone did not make money, all have shared the loot)."

This is Yadav-land, and Yadav numero uno, apparently, can do no wrong here.

In Raghopur, one of the assembly segments falling under the Hajipur constituency, the dominant Yadav community says it is determined to 'teach Paswan a lesson'. Rajender Rai won't even brook mention of Paswan's name. "Last time we backed Paswan only because Lalooji wanted him to go to the Lok Sabha, this time we will make sure he loses his jamanat (security deposit) for two reasons: for scuttling Lalooji's bid to become prime minister and for siding with Sharad Yadav in the dispute over the JD presidency!"

What makes the outlook even more bleak for the beleaguered railway minister is that the Muslims, who have a sizeable presence in the Jandhaha, Mahhar and Mahua assembly segments, sound equally hostile towards Paswan. "Paswan has done nothing for our community, he given jobs only for a selected few," says Muhammad Nayeem, an educated unemployed Muslim youth of Bhairopur. "Laloo has kept communal forces at bay, he has done a lot for the community."

Another reason for Muslim antipathy is the support extended to Paswan by the BJP-Samata Party combine. Again, irony -- while the BJP-SP does not have enough clout to swing the election to the railway minister's side, the support of these two parties is actually taking votes away from the candidate they are trying to help.

Paswan's intrinsic strength, which lies in the upper caste Rajputs and Bhumihars who, together, constitute about 300,000 of the total electorate, is also under threat thanks to Laloo Yadav's new political equation that includes Muslims, Rajputs and Yadavas all under one umbrella.

Besides, Das has the image of "a backward leader playing forward politics" -- which should, analysts say, help him mop up a segment of forward caste votes as well.

Effectively, thus, Paswan finds himself pinning his hopes on one factor -- the perceived desire of the forward caste voters of the BJP-Samata fold to back him. Not because they like Paswan, but out of an intense hatred for Laloo Yadav. Vijay Kumar Sharma, a resident of Gangajal village in the Patepur assembly segment, epitomises this mindset when he says, "Last time we voted for Dasji to defeat Laloo, this time we will vote against Dasji to see the political death of Laloo Prasad."

But in this battle of big names and bigger egos, what of issues, local or national? Kamlesh Kumar Singh, taking a moment from managing his Mahua Petrol Pump, says that caste, more than anything else, is going to determine who votes for what. Kamlesh Kumar, of course, is more enlightened -- he will vote for Paswan because "Ram Vilasji has done a lot for this constituency, he has brought the railway zonal office here, converted the Hajipur-Bachwara rail lines from meter gauge to broad gauge, given us hospitals...."

In a flippant vein, Suresh Paswan, no relation of the illustrious candidate, refers to Ram Vilas as the 'Railway Minister for Hajipur' -- tribute to the way Paswan has nursed his constituency. "If the people in Delhi know Hajipur it is not because of Laloo Prasad but due to Ram Vilas Paswan," he says.

Paswan himself is throwing his entire energy into the campaign. "He visits 70 to 80 villages each day, he stops only at 2 am," says his campaign manager Raja Ram Singh.

But then, elections are more about colour and light and drama -- and in this aspect, Paswan's allies the BJP come into their own. 'Wah re chunau ka khel, Laloo ka Lantern mei Kesri ka thel' and the more predictable 'Aandhi ho ya toofan, nahin rukega Paswan.'

One thing that emerges after an exhaustive tour of the sprawling constituency is that Laloo, at the end of it all, might have to make a meal of his prestige -- the contest seems too even to justify Laloo Yadav's boast of a record-breaking defeat for Paswan.

And the bottom line is simply this -- that the contest in Hajipur is not about Paswan versus Das. Not about upper castes versus the rest. Not about development or the lack thereof.

At bedrock, the undercurrent is simple, and clear -- this is an election where the voters are asked to make a simple choice: are you pro Laloo, or anti?

Campaign Trail

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