In Sasaram, it’s BJP vs Cong, but there’s an elephant in the room

To underline its seriousness, BSP boss Mayawati visited Bhabhua town, part of this LS seat.

Agencies
Both PM Modi and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar have canvassed in the constituency, highlighting the contest’s seriousness. The Congress top guard has been missing.
At the heart of Sasaram lies the tomb of Sher Shah Suri, the great medieval Afghan emperor who interrupted Mughal rule and who restored the Grand Trunk Road. On a torrid summer afternoon, barring a few young lovers fussing over each other in shaded corners, there are few visitors to this symmetrical tribute to Indo-Islamic architecture.

Sitting at the mausoleum’s entrance, security guard Dhardeb Choubey is expansive about another eminent personality whose name is synonymous with Sasaram: Jagjivan Ram. “This region used to be a Congress fortress. Now it is gone,” he says, rather wistfully. Ram won the SC-reserved seat eight times.

Congress’s run was first interrupted by Chhedi Paswan, then a Janata Dal candidate. Paswan, a party-hopper par excellence, has won this seat three times; in 2014, as a BJP candidate. His main opponent is Ram’s daughter, Meira Kumar, two-time MP and ex-Lok Sabha Speaker. In their three previous LS contests, Paswan leads Kumar 3-0.


But the close encounter between BJP and Congress has an intriguing twist this time. BSP brings a third dimension to the polls. The party founded by Kanshi Ram has a decent presence in these parts of south Bihar, probably because it is close to east UP, one of its strongholds. BSP’s candidate, Manoj Kumar, has a master’s degree in rural development.

In the past, BSP has won assembly seats in Mohania (SC), Bhabhua and Chainpur. To underline its seriousness, BSP boss Mayawati visited Bhabhua town, part of this LS seat, and addressed a public gathering late last week. Going strictly by caste calculations, BSP is likely to cut into more Congress than BJP votes. About 21% of the constituency is Dalit.

Daily wager Kameshwar Ram of Bhagwanpur, a village located in the foothills of the Kaimur range, says he will vote for BSP and it doesn’t matter how many votes the candidates gets. “Earlier we voted for Congress due to Jagjivan Ram. Then Kanshi Ram came and we became aware of Dr Ambedkar’s ideas. Now we vote for Mayawati,” he says. His card-playing partner, Shiv Murat Ram, agrees. BSP got 31,000 votes in 2014 and there’s a possibility it might get more in 2019.
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BJP won three of the six assembly seats in this constituency the following year. Lalu’s RJD, Nitish’s JD(U) and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP claimed one seat apiece. The state’s changed political equation works to BJP’s advantage. Paswan won the 2014 LS polls by over 63,000 votes.

Sasaram is a rice grower’s paradise but the constituency is starved of industries, quality health and education facilities. Talking to voters in this underdeveloped constituency, one gathers that Paswan isn’t exactly a popular candidate. A local JD(U) politician, preferring anonymity, admitted that Paswan hasn’t performed satisfactorily and a hard battle lies ahead.

“There is an anti-Paswan mood in the constituency. But, conversely, there is also a pro-Modi sentiment,” he says. Unemployed graduate Rishdev Mishra reflects that view. He says national security gets top priority. “If the country is safe, development will follow,” says Mishra, who will vote BJP because Modi reflects his view.

Both PM Modi and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar have canvassed in the constituency, highlighting the contest’s seriousness. The Congress top guard has been missing. “There are substantial Kurmi votes in Sasaram. Most of them will go to BJP now,” he says. Nitish is a kurmi by caste. His party, now a BJP ally, fetched 93,000 votes last time.
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Locals point out that Binds, an occupational caste listed among the Extremely Backward Classes (EBC), account for about a lakh of the votes. In 2014, the community had largely voted BJP. This time their votes are divided, they say. The Bind vote will be crucial to the outcome.

(Inputs from Alok Chamaria)
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