Nondescript Begusarai makes a star turn

For long known as the Leningrad of Bihar for its left leanings, Begusarai is making headlines this time round as the battleground from where former student leader Kanhaiya Kumar is seeking a maiden entry into the Lok Sabha in a three-cornered contest with firebrand BJP minister Giriraj Singh and RJD’s Tanweer Hassan.

Five years ago, Hassan was edged by out by the BJP’s Bhola Singh less than 60,000 votes with the victor getting a vote share of 35% compared to 34% of the vanquished, thanks largely to the Modi-Nitish wave that saw the NDA win 31 of the 40 seats of the state. This time round, barring the RJD, both the BJP and the Communists have changed their candidate.

The ruling party brought in Giriraj Singh, who won the Nawada seat in 2014 with close to 45% vote share after the death of the sitting MP Bhola Singh last year. The party did not give any reason for the shift, was probably aware of the importance of retaining Begusarai in the wake of Kanhaiya Kumar’s decision to contest from this erstwhile communist stronghold.

Kumar, who is a native of Begusarai, has included his status as a son of the soil in the campaign narrative, but the challenge for this artful orator could well come from the RJD, which refused to support the CPI candidate, given the fact that Tanweer Hassan had polled close to 3.7 lakh votes from the constituency in the last elections.

With the Yadavs and Muslims reportedly backing Hassan, the battle becomes tougher for Kanhaiya Kumar as he would be chasing the 35% vote share that brought victory for the BJP for the first time from Begusarai in 2014. The constituency has elected the Congress nominee in seven of the 15 general elections, was allocated to the JDU since 2004 as part of their pre-poll seat-sharing arrangements with the INC.

The constituency, which accounts for seven assembly segments, saw the RJD and its allies sweep the 2015 elections. While JDU candidates defeated NDA-ally LJP at Cheria-Bariarpur and Matihani, BJP candidates were defeated from Bachhwara, Begusarai, Teghra and Bakhri by the Congress and the RJD, which also took Sahebpur beating the LJP nominee.

While the ruling NDA has come up with several economic packages in the past, the ground realities haven’t altered substantially enough to create a definitive swing for the ruling party at the Centre which is also in power through its alliance with the Nitish Kumar-led JDU. However, the alliance could well benefit from the tri-cornered contest this time round.

A bevy of top leaders from the Left Parties have flocked down to Begusarai to support Kanhaiya Kumar, who has sought to present himself as a symbol of resistance to “autocratic forces” and the political parties supported by large industrial houses. Others who have descended in the region include movie actors Prakash Raj, Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar and Swara Bhaskar to name a few.

As for Giriraj Singh, the firebrand leader has already courted controversy over his comments targeted at the religion of his RJD opponent. The local authorities promptly filed an FIR over the comments made at a rally at which senior BJP leaders including party president Amit Shah were present. This is not the first time Singh has raised such radical comments about Muslims and foreigners in general, that includes Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.

While the BJP party workers claim that the Modi factor would be enough to retain the seat, political observers believe that the battle wouldn’t be all that easy. While Kanhaiya Kumar has appealed to the working class to unite against the business owners, there is also the caste factor brought in by the RJD, Congress and the Upendra Khushwaha-led RLSP.

On his part, Kanhaiya Kumar is also relying on his local connect to get him support from the women voters, who accounted for close to 49% of the total registered voters in 2014. As a Bhumihar, the former student leader has appealed to his community as well as the working-class voters in the constituency, once famous for its fertilizer factories.

It remains to be seen whether Kanhaiya can revive the red in this erstwhile communist bastion or whether saffron will retain its hold over it this time.  

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