Lockdown hardship, job loss: cracks in Nitish home citadel

Kalyan Bigha has gained, but economic distress a worry

The road is smooth, blacktopped, white markers in the middle that speak of a recent coat of paint. The fields are green on either side. At the entrance to the village, there is an ITI, and then a referral hospital. One signpost even boasts of a shooting range. Kalyan Bigha, in the district of Nalanda, bears the signs of administrative attention, of being Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s village. Its residents say that until now, with the village seeing so much work, there has been unanimity among residents, cutting across caste, throwing their weight behind Kumar in polls. But this time, cracks are appearing in that edifice.

The larger Harnaut assembly constituency is as close to a Nitish Kumar bastion as they come. It was from here that he won his first assembly election in 1985, on his third attempt, and then again in 1995. For the past three terms, there has been a JDU MLA, Harinarayan Singh, who is contesting the elections again, in a seat that goes to the polls in the second phase on November 3.

On Thursday morning, right next to the blacktopped road, and close to a temple, a group of six elders of the village sit and discuss politics. They are all Kurmi, but believe “only a fool would vote for anyone else” but Nitish Kumar. “What has he not done for this village? There is a road, a big government school, an ITI, a hospital. We remember the days before he became Chief Minister when we had to carry our ailing on charpais through the fields because there was no road. Snakes would bite us, and even 4 km away in Harnaut, there was no guarantee the patient would live. This development, is it not for everyone? The whole village of Kalyan Bigha always votes for Nitish Kumar,” Umesh Kumar said.

And yet, this preference for Nitish Kumar doesn’t quite mean there’s happiness over government policies in the last six months. In Kalyan Bigha, Umesh Kumar says, there has not been a single case of Covid-19D, and that has led to disenchantment with the lockdown and other measures to prevent its spread. Not a single person in the village is wearing a mask, nor is there any social distancing.

“Agar gaon mein, jaan pehchan mein kisi ko hua hi nahi, toh kaise maan le Corona hai? (If no one in the village has tested positive, how do we believe there’s Corona?). And this government locked down the country. Our children in the cities had to return because there was no money, and the condition is still bad,” Kumar said.

There is another reason for anger bubbling at the surface. The coming days will bring both Durga Puja and Chhath, and the decision not to allow “melas” during this period is not being received well. “If we are going through a crisis, people should be allowed to congregate and pray to God. These are our biggest festivals. The mela would mean this temple behind you would be full. There would be lights in the village and food stalls, and other small shops. Everything is now gone,” said another elder.

Asked if they hold anyone responsible, there is silence. “Everyone here will vote Nitish Kumar. He has changed our village and the constituency. That is your answer,” Umesh Kumar said.

Not everyone. Two hundred metres away, Pawan Paswan is filling water at the area handpump. Until a few months ago, he was a daily wage labourer at Mithapur in Patna, 60 km away. When work stopped, he came home.

“It has never been this bad for the poor. Even in the village, there’s work in their parts,” he points to the elders, who are all Kurmi. “We always voted for Nitish Kumar in the village, but this time, the Paswans are talking about voting for the LJP. Even the Dalits may not vote for Nitish Kumar. He might win this seat, but he does not have our vote,” Paswan said.

About 10 km away, another group of elders, mostly from the Scheduled Castes, sit by a road in Telmar village. If Kalyan Bigha has pucca homes, the houses in the basti of Telmar are cheek by jowl, their thatched roofs in urgent need of repair, open drains flowing to one side. Here too, Naresh Ravidas says that some might still vote for Nitish Kumar because it is his seat, but in the last five years, “Kumar had stopped working for the poor.” “Road banaya, lekin road pe toh gaadi chalti hai na? Humein kya mila? (He has built roads, but cars run on roads. What did we get?),” he said.

The economic distress from the lockdown is a prevalent factor everywhere in Bihar, and in Telmar, there is much conversation around it.

“Everything has stopped, prices of vegetables have gone up. Potatoes are at Rs 80 a kilo. Can a poor man buy that? They say they gave five kilos of ration and 1 kilo of dal. I have 9 people in my house, but only 5 people got it. Tell me, how long will it last then? Nitish Kumar has given textbooks, but the teacher in our school doesn’t come. I can promise you, a Class 9 student cannot write her own name,” Ravidas said.

There are also allegations of how caste has entered administrative decisions in Telmar, and that has angered the Scheduled Castes.

“If the upper castes or the Kurmis want a community hall, they get it. For years, we have been asking for one. We need it the most. Our homes are small and ramshackle, there is no room for anything. But they don’t. If something is built in the village, it is on their side, never on ours. The government promised 3 decimals of land to the landless. Not many people have got it. These last five years have not been good,” Ravidas said.

This is still Nitish Kumar’s fortress and despite anti-incumbency against local MLA Harinarayan Singh, for “not visiting us”, the prevalent assessment is that the JDU will win the seat. But there are murmurs indicative of a larger anti-incumbency, amongst the poor, that has repercussions for the rest of the state.

One Telmar elder voices the sentiment: “At least in Lalu’s raj, we had some respect. Harnaut mein toh Nitish jeet jayega, lekin bahar kya hoga? (Nitish will win Harnaut, but what will happen elsewhere?).” Another says that among the Scheduled Castes, Nitish Kumar would win all the votes in Telmar. “Is baar, 12 haath Nitish jeetega, toh chaar haath koi aur (Nitish will get the majority votes),” he said. Naresh Ravidas disagrees. “8 haath aur 8 haath bhi ho sakta hai (It may be an even contest).”

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