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'This time, it is about making Modi win'

April 30, 2019 12:06 IST

'He has attacked our enemies in their own backyard.'
Somesh Jha reports from Munger, which has the second-highest per capita GDP in Bihar.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi greets Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at a rally in Patna. Photograph: PTI Photo

Nationalism seems to be the top agenda for voters in Munger even as the local economy isn't able to support jobs for youth.

Munger's problems are highlighted by a tea vendor whose stall is walking distance from the busy fort area of the town.

"The famous gun industry is dying. It supported thousands of households. The ITC factory's workforce has shrunk and the railway locomotive factory isn't expanding in terms of local jobs support," Shankar, 45, says.

Munger has the second-highest per capita gross domestic product in Bihar, followed by its capital Patna.

It has a gun manufacturing unit, which made the town famous, an ITC factory and the oldest locomotive repair workshop of the Indian Railways in Jamalpur.

ITC, which provides direct employment to 1,800 workers, and the Eastern Railway Coach Factory have been key in the district's prosperity and the latter contributed to one-fourth of total investments in the district till a few years back.

But jobs are drying up as business is not expanding, as per locals.

Thousands of skilled workers, who were once employed in the Munger gun factory, have mostly taken up unskilled jobs or are jobless.

But for Rajo Mahota, a farmer selling vegetables in the local mandi, Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi is the answer to all problems.

He doesn't care who the local candidates were and would vote to elect the PM, Mahota says.

He acknowledges the farm distress and says he is yet to pay loan of Rs 50,000.

"He has attacked our enemies in their own backyard. He is the strongest leader today," an over enthusiastic Hemant Kumar, a daily wage worker, sipping tea at another shop, says while listening to a political conversation between his friends.

34-year-old Rajesh says though Hindu and Muslims in the district live in harmony, he still finds a "sort of monopoly" among state-level politicians to woo the latter community.

"No one is allowed to play music on loudspeakers during Durga Puja or Holi. The sound instruments are seized by police. Why does this happen?" he asks.

He says he has Muslim friends too, but he wants to take pride in Hindu festivals and he felt somewhat empowered with Modi at the Centre.

Rajesh's friends feel had Chief Minister Nitish Kumar not formed an alliance with the BJP in Bihar, he would have lost most Lok Sabha seats.

The local newspapers are splashed with ads by the BJP promoting nationalism as a poll plank.

Most Modi supporters rely on the information circulated through Whatsapp to curse the Gandhi family of the Congress, talking about their 'original religious identity.'

At Munger, it's a two-way battle between candidates of the Janata Dal-United -- part of the National Democratic Alliance -- and Congress of the Mahagathbandhan.

Almost a year ago when the NDA's seat-sharing formula for the general election of 2019 was being stitched, Veena Devi, the incumbent Lok Janshakti Party MP of Munger, had publicly made it clear that she would not leave her seat at any cost.

She even said that a denial of ticket would mean she would work towards defeating the JD-U candidate fighting from the Munger seat.

She had to ultimately make way for the state's Water Resources Minister Rajiv Ranjan Singh -- popularly known as Lallan Singh -- Nitish Kumar's right-hand man.

But it came at a cost to some.

The central minister for MSME Giriraj Singh was shifted from his stronghold seat of Nawada to Begusarai leaving him fuming, even as Veena Devi was given a ticket to fight from Nawada to get the alliance going.

Anant Singh, once considered to be Nitish Kumar's close aide, wants revenge.

Even as he was denied a ticket to fight from the Mahagathbandhan, his wife Neelam Devi is contesting on a Congress ticket from Munger.

Anant has more than a dozen police cases against him and he contested as an Independent candidate from Mokama -- an assembly constituency in Munger -- after being distanced from the JD-U in the 2015 state election.

Anant, known as 'Chotte Sarkar' by locals, fought from jail and won by a huge margin.

But this time, he seems to be fighting a lone battle as the NDA is campaigning in full force to back Lallan Singh, who is seen as a potential candidate to take up a role in the Union Cabinet if the NDA forms the government in May.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal does not want to associate with 'bahubali' Anant Singh, a party worker said, and the Congress isn't seen in its full force in Munger. RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav had publicly said he would not support Anant Singh due to his criminal record in the past.

Munger hasn't seen a Congress MP since 1989 and it has been a battleground mainly between the RJD and JD-U.

"The Congress candidate is nowhere to be seen," says Priya Ranjan Singh, Lallan Singh's younger brother and a professor in Patna.

Trying to justify Lallan Singh's loss in the 2014 Lok Sabha election from the same seat, Priya Ranjan Singh says voters got confused between the election symbols of the JD-U and Shiv Sena, which had contested from Munger.

Dalits form a major chunk of Munger electorate and both Neelam Devi and Lallan Singh are Bhumihar.

The narrow roads leading up to Nitish Kumar's rally in Kurmichak village in Ghoswari, connected through the main town under Mukhya the Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, are in bad shape and full of potholes.

Nitish Kumar arrives in a helicopter and his arrival is pre-empted by speeches by local leaders praising India's retaliatory air strike on Pakistan, following the Pulwama terror attack.

The crowd is the most zealous when nationalism is tgalked about.

Kurmichak had earlier been a part of the Barh Lok Sabha constituency which elected Nitish Kumar thrice beginning from 1989.

"How can I forget you people? I still remember those days when I used to walk 12 kilometres in a single day during election campaigning," he tells a small crowd gathered in a playground of a high school.

Kurmichak falls in the taal region of Bihar which used to get flooded till early 2000s when the Nitish government developed the area to control the flow of water and make cultivation possible by investing around Rs 1,900 crore.

Nitish Kumar speaks on the state's development under his regime since 2005.

He does not utter a word on nationalism, reassures the crowd he has worked for all -- be it Hindus and Muslims and across classes.

Ram Nandan Prasad, a farmer in the region, says the state government has done well to develop the area for them, but lacks focus on quality school education.

He also speaks about how the region is unsafe due to high crime rate under Lalu Prasad Yadav's tenure .

But Satish Yadav says people are upset with Lallan Singh who was "never seen in the constituency after he won from the seat in 2009."

"But this time, it is more about making Modi win. Change is a slow process and nothing happened in our country in the last 70 years," he adds.

When Nitish Kumar is about to leave, a group of men shout from the crowd, "Declare Barh a district."

It falls on deaf ears.

Somesh Jha