Nalanda (Bihar), Oct 25: Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's home turf Nalanda will prove to be a litmus test for the JDU-RJD alliance as the dominant castes in the region--- Kurmis and Yadav have for long been rivals here.
Whether they joins hands in the name of larger OBC unity or not will be at play in Nalanda, which will reflect the voting pattern for the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar.
BJP has demanded deployment of Special Observer in Nalanda from the date of polling to that of counting. Amid a perception that the NDA has lagged behind in first two phases, the BJP-led alliance is banking big on the third phase of polling on October 28 in 50 Assembly constituencies in six districts.
While it is confident of scoring in urban centres like Patna and BJP strongholds including Saran, Bhojpur and Buxar, the party is also leaving no stone unturned to spring a surprise in Nalanda as it tries hard to compensate for any losses in the first two phases.
Yadavs constitute 14 percent of the total electorates while Kurmis are 4 per cent in the state. While Yadavs are spread across the state, Kurmis are concentrated mainly in Nalanda and some other areas.
However, they constitute around 30 percent of total votes in Nalanda. The Parliamentary seat has an electorate of 19.49 lakh, including 5.5 lakh Kurmi voters.
Nalanda Lok Sabha seat has sent veteran socialist leader George Fernandes to Lok Sabha thrice, in 1996, 1989 and 1999. Nitish won from here in 2004.
When Nitish Kumar became Chief Minister in 2005, the seat went to close aide Kaushalendra Kumar, who also retained in 2009.
In the Narendra Modi wave in 2014 also, Kaushlendra won the seat but with a narrow margin of 9627 votes, which indicated the changing mood even in the backyard of Nitish Kumar.
Satya Nand Sharma from the LJP was the runner up. The Ram Vilas Paswan's party has fielded candidates in three of the seven assembly seats--Hilsa, Asthawan and Harnout, where Nitish Kumar's ancestral village is located.
Last time JD-U in alliance with the BJP had won six of the seven seats in the district.
While political compulsions have forced Nitish and Lalu to come together, both communities have a history of rivalry in Nalanda. Ever since RJD supremo Lalu Prasad came to power these two castes have been sharing power in the region by turns.
First it was a stronghold of Lalu but soon Kurmis and other extremely backward castes started resenting the dominance of Yadavs. Later Nitish Kumar made a dent in it. Since then Nalanda had been an impregnable fort of Nitish.
The shift of power has left the Yadavs fuming. Voters in both communities want to retain the seats held by them in past. It's not that the leaders are oblivious to the fact. Both Kumar and Prasad have addressed a number of rallies in the region to bring home the message of unity among their respective voters.
Opponents of the grand alliance believe that actions like reopening of the disproportionate assets case against Lalu Prasad and his wife Rabri Devi soon after Nitish Kumar came to power and the exit of Yadavs from contracts and other perks during the JD-U regime are fresh in the memory of the community and it will not vote for Nitish.
However, supporters of Mahagathbandhan talk of Triveni Sangh unity days. They argue that if after years of violent fight Nalanda, Nawada and Sheikhpura districts Bhumihars and Kurmis can join hands under BJP-JDU regime, why can an alliance of Yadavs-Koiris and Kurmis can work as had happened in 1933 in the form of Triveni Sangh.
After the formation of Triveni Sangh in 1933 by Sardar Jagdeo Singh Yadav, Chaudhari Yadunandan Prasad Mehta and Dr Shivpujan Singha Yadav, a Koeri and a Kurmi respectivelythe three castes had remained together as natural allies till 1994, when Nitish Kumar parted ways from Lalu Prasad as complaints grew that only Yadavs are beneficiaries under Lalu dispensation.
The Triveni Sangh was a formidable force against the upper castes. "If a Yadav candidate is there, Kurmis do not vote for him. Similarly if some party has fielded a Kurmi candidate Yadavs do not vote for him," insists Suresh Chandravanshi of Kalyanbigha, the ancestral village of Nitish Kumar in Harnaut assembly segment of Nalanda.
Mindful of the chasm between the two communities, the rival NDA alliance has picked candidates, doing its own social engineering.
In Biharsharif and Islampur the NDA had fielded Kurmi candidates in a bid to make a dent in the vote base of Nitish. BJP has not fielded any upper caste candidate from Nalanda.
The grand alliance had done a lot of hair splitting on deciding candidates this time and had not shied away from denying tickets even to its sitting MLAs to arrive at better caste consolidation. Besides this Yadav-Kurmi divide in the region, the BJP is also banking heavily on the non-Yadav OBCs like Mallah, and Chandravanshis.
The party has inducted former minister and JD-U MLC Bhim Singh, a leader of Kahar (palanquin bearers) or Chandrvanshi, another EBC as the poll enters the crucial third and fourth amid a perception that the Mahagathbandhan had an age in first two phases with the political discourse revolving round reservation and forward versus upper caste fight.
Chandravanshis complain that they have not been given their due by political parties. In Nitish Kumar's Kalyan bigha, Suresh Chandravanshi had almost decided to file nomination but decided against it as he was "prevailed" upon that he should not do anything, which can spoil chances of the JD-U candidate in the Nitish stronghold.
"After Kurmis, Chandravanshis constitute the largest chunk of votes but they were given representation. I had decided to file nomination and had toured the entire village but backed out at last moment. This time Chandravanshi samaj is determined to vote for its own candidate. Most of the Chandravanshi votes will go to NCP's Neelam Devi, who is from the community. It's not that the Chandravanshi candidates will win this time but a message should go that we count. No party is giving value to Chandravanshi as if we do not matter. We have to prove it wrong," he says.
While the BJP inducted Bheem Singh, party veteran from and sitting MLA from Gaya Prem Kumar, who hails from the same community, shared the dais with BJP President Amit Shah during a press conference in Patna leading to tongue wagging that he may be the dark horse for Chief Ministership if the NDA wins.
Clearly the BJP is banking much on the somewhat silent EBC voters. With leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitan Ram Manjhi in its kitty, the NDA is wooing Dalits and Mahadalits. Apart from the crude caste arithmetic, the BJP has tried to give a touch of glamour to the campaign in the entertainment starved regions.
Film star Ajay Devgan also held a meeting here. Home Minister Rajnath Singh had already campaigned in the region and Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a rally in Nalanda today.
The rivals believe that despite campaigns like 'har ghar dastak', absence of JD-U cadres could spoil the game for Nitish as one of the drawback of the Chief Minister's ways of administering the state was that JD-U workers were not empowered as Nitish Kumar depended heavily on bureaucracy to rule the state, a phase which came after "over-interference" of politicos in administration during the RJD regime.
"Last year when Nitish Kumar was addressing an election rally at Ashthawan block, angry villagers pelted stones at him. They were resenting against the local MP and Nitish had to ask the MP to tender an immediate apology. It's not that all issues will be glossed over under Nitish impact here," says a BJP supporter in Nalanda bazaar.
But difference seem to be reconciled in Harnout, where Nitish Kumar's ancestral home is located at Kalyan Bigha, where 'bas naam hi kaafi hai'. Ramdev of Kichni village is angry that he is not getting old age pension and has not got a ration card even as households with four-five bighas of land have got it. But he is quick to add "bechara CM kya karenge. CM ka galati nahin hai. Beech wala sab gadbad karta hai (CM has no fault. All the wrongs are being done by the intermediaries."
Brickwalls of houses plastered with cow dung greet as one enters the village to reach his thatched house without power connection even when the entire village is lit up.
The village has around 300 houses of different castes--Kurmi, Manjhi, Kahar, Paswan, Yadav and Dhanuks. Septuagenarian Sita Ram, the caretaker of the house, who has seen Nitish Kumar growing up, studying in the light of lantern in the house to become an engineer and then join politics and rise in ranks to become the head of the state, says, "leader have come and gone but Nalanda is with Nitish."
The house is lighted with the help of a solar plate installed on the rooftop and smells of cow dung. Though the village is fully electrified, the house has no power connection as "Nitish ji had promised his house will have electricity only when homes in the Centre get it," says Sitaram.
Wide roads, pucca houses and hospitals dot the village along with SBI bank branch. Near the CM's residence is also an indoor shooting range for girls. The assembly segment Harnout has in particular been with Nitish in his thick and thin.
It has voted Nitish Kumar or his candidates since 1985, when he first contested the seat. Sitting JD(U) MLA Harinarayan Singh is in a fight with LJP's Arun Kumar alias Arun Bind, an advocate who banks on Dalit, Mahadalit and EBC votes.
There are complaints galore against the sitting MLA but voting out him is "not an option". After all whatever Harnout is today, it is due to Nitishji, say the locals. "Vote to Nitishji ko hi denge. Nitish ji isi gaaon ke hain. Harinaryan is also a Kurmi but he will win only in the name of Nitish," says Vikas Kumar, an Intermediate pass out without even taking the name of the JD-U candidate from Harnout.
He, however, accepts that all communities will not vote for the JD-U MLA. "Mallahs (boatmen community) will vote for the community candidate Bind," he says.
BJP has made serious bid to reach out to Mallahs, an extremely backward caste and involved the President of Nishad Vikas Sangh Mukesh Sahni in a big way to campaign for it.
It believes that the 35-year-old Sahni can capture the imagination of Mallahs, Sahnis, Nishads, Binds, Gangotas and a few others--who are fishermen and boatmen, constituting around 5 percent of the population.
Reaching to EBCs or most backward castes (MBCs), BJP has showcased Sahni at a number of rallies. Sahni, a resident of Darbhanga heads Mukesh Cineworld Private Limited and has worked for some top notch film producer, preparing their sets before staging his image of the "son of Mallah" in Bihar polls.
Trying to cash in on the Yadav versus Kurmi rivalry, NDA ally LJP has fielded Deepika Kumari, the wife of alleged question paper leak scam kingpin Suman Kumar Singh alias Ranjit Don, a Kurmi from Hilsa. JD(U) denied ticket to sitting MLA Usha Sinha from the same community and gave the ticket to RJD, which has fielded Shakti Singh Yadav.
LJP is banking on the traditional Kurmi-versus Yadav rivalry in the region. The role of the former JD-U MLA, hailing from the same community is also to be seen. Rivals are calling Shakti Singh Yadav an "outsider".
There is an attempt to tell Kurmis that if the seat goes to some other community, it will not come back to them. In 2010 also JD-U had won the seat in a direct fight with LJP, which over 13,000 lesser votes than the JDU nominee.
Suman had earlier lost Vidhan Parishad poll to JD-U's Reena Devi. He was arrested in 2003 on the charge of being the kingpin of the racket involved in leaking question papers of several medical and engineering entrance tests in the country.
In Islampur, the sitting JDU MLA Rajiv Ranjan turned a rebel and joined the BJP. However, the BJP has fielded Virender Gope, who was the runner up on RJD ticket last time. JD-U has given the ticket to an old worker Chandrasen Prasad.
BJP is trying to wean away Yadav votes from the grand alliance in the name of Gope. Long back the seat was represented by K B Prasad from Yadav community. Last time the JD-U candidate had won the seat with a margin of around 20 thousand votes.
In Rajgir, the BJP has fielded sitting MLA Satyadev Narayan Arya. JD-U candidate is Ravi Jyoti, who was earlier in police service, who is debuting in politics against Arya, a seven term MLA from the reserved constituency.
In Biharsharif, Sunil Kumar is the BJP candidate, while JDU has fielded Md Asgar Shameem while Pappu Yadav's Jan Adhikar Party has fielded Aafreen Sultana, who is wife of former MLA Pappu Khan. Afreen was runner up in the previous polls.
Much of the JD-U fate depends on the votes Aafreen manages to get. Sunil Kumar, who has earlier been with JD-U seems to be in a strong position but Rahui block, which is a stronghold of Nitish can pour cold waters on his plans.
In Ashthawan, which is home to JD-U MP RCP Singh, sitting JD-U MLA Jitendra Kumar is contesting against LJP's Chhotelal Yadav. Yadav is trying to attract the traditional BJP and BJP and LJP voters besides his own community men.
LJP was the runner-up in last assembly polls here. Jan Adhikar Party has fielded Pramod Kumar Sinha and SP Kiran Devi.
In Nalanda Assembly seat, development speaks for itself. Sitting JD-U MLA Shravan Kumar, a minister in the state government is pitted against Kaushlendra Kumar alias Chhote Mukhia of BJP. CPI-ML's Manmohan Kumar, Jan Adhikar Partys Dilip Chaudhary and BSP's Dilip Kumar are also in the fray.
As politicians work out the caste dynamics and dole out promises, residents have their share of woes. In Katouna, Daveshpura and Mairawpeeth panchayats of Nalanda, villagers fear flood from Sakri river as the bund on eastern bank of the rivers is in a dilapidated condition.
Mushars in Harnaut bazaar complain that the the sitting MLA hardly visits them. Complaints are also galore about non-distribution of food-grains among them.
In Nepura village in Rajgir, where weaving was once the bread-earner for hundreds of families, weavers complain that there is no body to address their problems.
Villagers rue that a number of innocent residents were booked in false power theft case. The grievances pile up as one interacts with villagers.