Baahubalis, the ubiquitous strongmen with muscle and moolah in successive elections, have not become irrelevant yet in poll-bound Bihar. They are still holding the fort on their own or by proxy through their kin in the latest democratic battle. But a whole new army of highly qualified professionals is trying to usher in a refreshing change by making their presence felt in the fray, alongside the usual politics of guns and goons. From an Arjuna Award-winning female shooter to an educated young woman who changed the face of an underdeveloped village as the mukhiya (elected panchayat head) over the past five years, there are many ambitious candidates from different backgrounds who share a common dream to turn Bihar into a developed state.
Some have ventured into the battleground on the ticket of various political parties, while others have dared to try their luck as independents. The most ambitious of them is perhaps Pushpam Priya Choudhary, who founded the Plurals Party with an avowed objective to make Bihar “as developed as any European province in 10 years”. Having done her master’s degree in public administration from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and also in development studies from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, in the UK, the 33-year-old has fielded several professionals such as doctors, engineers and journalists to take on the candidates of parties with enormous clout and resources.
Choudhary is facing a challenge in Bankipur constituency from at least two candidates with degrees from prestigious foreign universities. Congress candidate Luv Sinha is a graduate of the School of Communications, Webster University, Missouri. The 39-year-old actor son of Bollywood veteran Shatrughan Sinha aims to win over the voters by raising development issues. “I am here to fight for people’s welfare,” he says. The other contender is Manish Barriaar, a teacher who is an alumnus of Oxford University and the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, Delhi. There are many poll debutants like them, and all claim to have a vision to propel Bihar on the fast track of development.
(L to R) Ritu Jaiswal Parihar, RJD; Shreyasi Singh Jamui, BJP; Subhashini Raj Rao Biharganj, Congress.
Shreyasi Singh, for one, has joined the BJP after being inspired by PM Narendra Modi’s Aatma Nirbhar Bharat campaign. “I also want to fulfil my father’s dreams and work for Bihar’s development to the best of my ability,” says the daughter of the late Digvijay Singh, former Union minister of state for external affairs, who had represented the Banka parliamentary seat several times. After his death in 2010, Sheyasi’s mother Putul Devi also won a by-election from the same constituency. Now, it’s the daughter’s turn to hit bullseye in the assembly polls. The 29-year-old, a Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning shooter, has been fielded by the BJP from the Jamui constituency.
Among other notable women in the fray is Ritu Jaiswal, the RJD candidate from Parihar constituency in Sitamarhi. Wife of a former IAS officer, the 35-year-old shot to fame about five years ago when she won an election to become the mukhia of Singhvahini panchayat. Her efforts to ensure development won her the prestigious Deen Dayal Upadhyay Panchayat Sashaktikaran Puruskar. There was speculation ahead of the Lok Sabha polls last year that the ruling JD(U) would field her from Sitamarhi. Recently, she set all conjectures to rest by joining the RJD.
Expressing gratitude to the Mahagathbandhan’s CM candidate, Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, Jaiswal says there is no space for honest and diligent women leaders in the JD(U). “Being a panchayat representative working at the grassroots level, I feel honoured that our RJD family considered me that worthy,” she says. For the RJD, her selection underlines Tejashwi’s resolve to herald a “new era, new politics and new Bihar”. “That is how the Opposition’s CM candidate is changing Bihar’s political dynamics by rising above caste, creed and gender lines,” adds Jaiswal.
(L to R) Ritlal Ray Danapur, RJD; Anant Singh Mokama, RJD.
While the JD(U) may not have given Jaiswal a ticket, the party has not fought shy of backing other qualified professionals. Shalini Mishra, its candidate from Kesaria in East Champaran, is a post-graduate from the National Institute of Technology and Management, Ghaziabad. From Madhepura, the party has fielded Nikhil Mandal, son of the late B.P. Mandal of ‘Mandal Commission’ fame. Nikhil, now an advocate, was earlier a financial adviser at IDBI Bank, but decided to follow his family tradition by joining politics. The BJP has also fielded Nikhil Anand from Maner near Patna. Anand, an alumnus of JNU and IIMC Delhi, was in television journalism for several years. He says he is in the fray to endure development in his constituency, which has remained stagnant as previous legislators did precious little.
The Congress too has its share of such candidates. Apart from Luv Sinha, it has given ticket to Shubhanand Mukesh, former assembly speaker Sadanand Singh’s son, from Kahalgaon seat in Bhagalpur district. Veteran socialist leader Sharad Yadav’s daughter Subhashini Yadav has also been fielded from Bihariganj constituency in Madhepura district.
Political observers believe the proliferation of forward-looking candidates is a healthy sign of democracy, but the days of candidates with criminal antecedents are far from over. Social scientist Gyandeo Mani Tripathi says Bihar’s electoral history can broadly be divided into three phases. “In the first phase, most candidates were associated with the freedom struggle, he says. “Then came the era when politicians began to hire baahubalis to ensure their victory. Later, the baahubalis decided to contest polls themselves instead of helping others become lawmakers.”
Even in this election, there is no dearth of candidates whose names figure in multiple criminal cases. Anant Singh, currently in jail in a murder case, has filed his nomination from Mokama for his fourth consecutive term on an RJD ticket. Mokama has been a baahubali’s pocket borough for decades. While Anant’s elder brother Dilip Singh won the seat twice in 1990 and 1995, an independent Suraj Bhan Singh won it in 2000.
Elsewhere, another RJD strongman Surendra Prasad Yadav will be aiming for his eighth victory from the Belaganj seat in Gaya. The party has also fielded Ritlal Ray, a murder accused out on bail after spending nearly a decade in jail, from the Danapur seat. Other baahubalis like Kali Pandey of Congress, Amarendra Pandey of JD(U), Munna Shukla (Independent) and Kaushal Yadav of JD(U) are also in the fray, while others such as Rama Singh, Ranveer Yadav and Manoranjan Singh Dhumal have fielded their spouses to win the election by proxy.
According to the Association for Democratic Reforms and Bihar Election Watch, out of the total 1,064 candidates in the first phase, 328 (31 per cent) have declared criminal cases against them. Of them, 244 (23 per cent) faces serious criminal charges. Incidentally, out of a total of 10,785 candidates, including 820 MPs/MLAs who have contested either parliamentary or assembly elections since 2005 from Bihar, a total of 3,230 (30 per cent) have declared criminal cases against them. Of them, 2,204 (20 per cent) face serious criminal cases. Out of 820 MPs/MLAs since 2005, 469 (57 per cent) have declared criminal cases, out of which 295 (36 per cent) have serious criminal cases. Such statistics are testimony to the fact that the more things change, the more they remain the same in Bihar elections, with or without the presence of candidates with a clean record.
By Giridhar Jha in Patna