Begusarai goes to vote today in the fourth phase of the 17th Lok Sabha elections. This year, the constituency has been in the spotlight all because of one name – Kanhaiya Kumar.
For a long time, Begusarai’s politics has been dominated by money-power and muscle-power. Caste, religion and regional equations have largely determined how people vote. The stories which earlier used to undergird elections in Begusarai were centred around which criminal was contesting and how polling booths were being captured.
This time, however, Begusarai has stolen the nation’s attention for other reasons.
Despite being colloquially known as ‘Bihar’s Leningrad’, Begusarai has elected only one CPI member of parliament – in 1967, but continues to be strongly influenced by the political left in assembly elections. In the 16 general elections the constituency has witnessed, MPs have been chosen from the Congress eight times.
In 2014 – for the first time – a candidate from the BJP won from Begusarai. The BJP’s decision to field Dr Bhola Singh – a veteran of Bihar politics, who was also interestingly a part of the CPI, Congress and RJD before joining BJP – paid its dividends.
However, Singh’s sad demise in October 2018 left the constituency without a representative.
But this time, it’s not party loyalties that dominate people’s concerns. Kanhaiya has compelled those who lost faith in the CPI to focus on him as an individual candidate instead. The intense media scrutiny under which he has been has only added to his fame.
A number of known faces, including lyricist and singer Javed Akhtar, actors Prakash Raj and Swara Bhaskar, and comedian Kunal Kamra have made their way to the narrow lanes of Begusarai’s villages, bringing with them conversations and appeals.
Spending a week here in the run up to polling day offered this writer a number of insights.
Pitted against the BJP’s sitting MP from Nawada, Giriraj Singh, and the mahagathbandhan’s popular face, Tanveer Hasan, Kanhaiya has fought on the slogan: “Neta nahi beta (son, not politician.)”
Indeed, posters splashed across the constituency reflect this too. A billboard welcoming travellers into Beehat, a village in Begusarai, reads: “Kanhaiya Kumar ke gaon mein aapka swagat hai! (Welcome to the village of Kanhaiya Kumar.)” Even ads in the local dailies read: “Notetantra ke khilaaf, loktantra ke sath! (Against money power, in support of democracy!)”
The result has been heartwarming. The question on everyone’s mind this time has not been “which caste does he belong to?” or “which village he hails from?”
The question this time has been: “Do you agree with him? Do you know what he stands for?”
Win or lose, I think this is already Kanhaiya’s biggest achievement: that he has forced people to focus on ideas instead of identity; to focus on the candidate instead of the party.
Men, women and children have been huddled over cups of chai, animatedly discussing ideas of the nation and development. The women have started to disagree with the men. The children, peering over their data-enabled cell phones, have started forming opinions of their own.
There are no binaries. There are multiple people who want both Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the centre and Kanhaiya at their home.
Yet, in him, they see a voice.
This is not to say that caste or identity politics have disappeared entirely from the minds of voters here – that would be a highly ambitious claim.
It is only to say that if Indian democracy throws up candidates capable of shaping narratives, the public is willing to discuss them too.
Shruti Sonal is a freelance journalist and a poet, who writes with equal fervour about language and politics. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @shruti_writes.
Featured image credit: PTI