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Wives battle it out

When in jail, get your wife a Lok Sabha ticket. This is the mantra in some bihar constituencies

“Hum Munger ki bahu hain, Munger ki mahilaon ka vote aur aashirwad humko bonus ke roop mein milega (I am Munger’s daughter-in-law, I will get blessings and votes of women from Munger as a bonus),” says Neelam Devi, the Congress candidate from Munger Lok Sabha constituency in Magadh region of South-East Bihar. Her husband, don-turned-politician Anant Singh, is an independent MLA from Mokama who apparently failed to get party’s endorsement for his name. Instead, he settled for the next best option: a Lok Sabha ticket for his wife.

In doing so, Singh, addressed as Chhote Sarkar by his followers, took the familiar route taken by local clout-wielding bahubali (strongman) politicians in the state: fielding proxies to retain or extend their political fiefdoms.

In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, at least three constituencies in Bihar are witnessing such proxy contests: Siwan, Nawada and Munger. Besides these, there is also a seat (Supaul) where once a proxy, the wife has now entrenched herself enough to have her own electoral identity.

Interestingly, a much-talked-about possibility of fielding a proxy candidate didn’t materialise in Khagaria, a constituency that has seen two wives of one local strongman contesting Assembly and Lok Sabha polls on tickets from opposing parties, with varying degrees of success.

The clearest face-off between the wives of two bahubalis this year is in Siwan, a constituency in Bhojpur region of Western Bihar. Hena Shahab, the wife of the former Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Member of Parliament Mohammad Shahabuddin, is contesting on an RJD ticket against Janta Dal (United) candidate Kavita Kumari, sitting MLA from Daraundha and wife of the jailed Siwan strongman’s arch-rival Ajay Singh.

Before being convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, Shahabuddin was four-time Siwan Lok Sabha MP (1996.1998, 1999 and 2004) successively. However. after conviction Shabu Saheb, as he is addressed by his supporters in Siwan, hasn’t been that lucky with his wife’s electoral forays. Hena Sahab lost in the last two Lok Sabha polls to Om Prakash Yadav, who fought as an independent in 2009 and then on Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket in 2009.

Despite these reversals, Shahabuddin seems to be ensuring that by fielding Hena, his proxy political presence in his stronghold remains alive.

In 2019, Hena’s NDA rival in Siwan, however, isn’t her old nemesis. She is facing a stiff challenge from the wife of another local don, Ajay Singh.

In fact, Ajay Singh’s marriage to Kavita in 2011 was explicitly shaped by a need to find a proxy candidate to fight Daraundha Assembly constituency. The seat had fallen vacant following the death of his mother and the sitting JD(U) MLA Jagmato Devi. Speaking to The Telegraph newspaper, Ajay later claimed that he followed chief minister and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar’s instruction to get married to procure a ticket for the wife. “Bihar ke Rajabole ki shaadi kar lo to ticket de denge [The Raja of Bihar told me to get married to get an election ticket].”

JD(U) obviously had apprehensions about fielding a candidate with a known criminal background. Fielding his wife was the way out.

Due paperwork of the bride for smooth filing of the candidature was a key consideration in the marriage. “Around 16 prospective brides had responded to the advertisement for Ajay’s wedding. They were all screened at a posh hotel in Chhapra. However, the clause for the prospective brides was unusual. The bride’s name should be in the voters’ list and she must have a voter’s identity card…a girl hailing from a political family would be given preference, the advertisement read,” The Telegraph report noted.

Kavita, daughter of a mukhiya (village headman) was selected and she went on to win the by-Assembly and retained the seat in 2015 as well. She now faces Hena in the larger battle for Siwan.

Such face-offs could have been seen in Munger too if Veena Devi, the sitting MP and wife of strongman Surajbhan Singh, was given a chance to defend her seat against Neelam Devi. Instead under NDA’s seat-sharing formula, the seat was left for JD(U) leader Lallan Singh to contest, who was defeated by Veena Devi in 2014 polls contesting on the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) ticket.

After being convicted in a murder case, former LJP MP Surajbhan couldn’t contest and ensured that his wife is fielded from Munger in the last Lok Sabha polls. Aided by Surajbhan’s clout and a Modi wave, she won and even managed to make some statements asserting her own political views during her campaign. One of which was a tongue-in-cheek threat of divorcing her husband if he failed to persuade LJP to ally with BJP.

The battle for Munger would still be the clash of two Bhumihar strongmen as Surajbhan Singh is standing firmly behind Lallan Singh while Anant Singh would be putting all his efforts to get wife Neelam Devi elected. The place anyway is associated with gun culture and crime barons. Munger, 210 km south-east of Patna, has been home to a two-centuries-old legal gun factory but what has really flourished as a cottage industry here is the illegal arms factory, from kattas to replicas of international brand products, including Kalashnikovs.

The battle of proxies was clearly visible in the first phase of polling this year for Nawada seat too, a constituency that LJP contested under NDA ‘s seat-sharing arrangement. The LJP is witnessing a fight between RJD’s Vibha Devi, wife of the former RJD MLA and strongman Raj Ballabh Prasad (in jail for raping a minor girl) and LJP’s Chandan Kumar, the brother of bahubali Suraj Bhan Singh. It is believed that Chandan Kumar was Bhan’s reluctant choice after wife Veena Devi, sitting LJP MP from Munger, wasn’t ready to contest from Nawada.

The seat has been in the news after its sitting MP and BJP leader Giriraj Singh went public with his unhappiness over being denied a shot at re-election from Nawada and on being shifted to Begusarai.

The NDA allocated the seat to the LJP and the party chose to field a Bhumihar candidate—one of the only three Bhumihar candidates that the NDA has fielded in the state and something that has irked the upper-caste group in Bihar.

Towards the north of Bihar, Seemanchal, the region bordering Nepal, two different battles of proxies can be seen. In Supaul, Congress candidate Ranjeet Ranjan, wife of strongman and Madhepura MP Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav, is seeking re-election. Yadav is a five-time MP (1991, 1996, 1999, 2004 and 2014) from different constituencies. Following the conviction in a murder case in 2008, he was debarred from contesting 2009 General Elections but was acquitted by the Patna High Court in 2013. Though he contested and won on RJD ticket in 2014 from Madhepura, he was expelled from the party in 2015  for his alleged anti-party activities. He formed his own Jan Adhikar Party, Loktantrik, though it could make no impact on the 2015 Assembly polls. He has been trying to return unsuccessfully to RJD-led mahagatbandhan in the state. Having shifted base from his stronghold to Madhepura in 2014, he is again contesting this year but on his own.

Unlike using a proxy for securing his fiefdom, Yadav’s political journey with his wife Ranjeet Ranjan has been of spawning his political turf. As early as 1995, only a year after marriage, Ranjeet contested from Supaul unsuccessfully, while Yadav was still an MP. In 2004, she shifted to Saharsa LS seat on an LJP ticket and was elected to Lok Sabha. Following delimitation, Saharsa parliamentary constituency ceased to exist and became a part of newly-formed Supaul constituency in 2009.

In the Lok Sabha polls the same year, she contested on Congress ticket from Supaul but lost. However, in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, she won Supaul seat as a Congress candidate and along with her husband, she was only one of the few candidates who could neutralise the Modi wave in her constituency. Last two decades have seen her coming into her own as a political force to reckon with. The challenge this year, however, for her would be to deal with the non-cooperation and even sabotage in Supaul from RJD party workers who aren’t happy with the mahagatbandhan allotting the seat to Congress.

In neighbouring Khagaria, the dreaded strongman and former legislator Ranveer Yadav has been ensuring that both his wives Poonam Devi Yadav and Krishna Kumari Yadav defend his political turf. Following conviction, having served imprisonment and still facing a slew of charges against him, Ranveer is out of the electoral game, but not his wives. While Poonam Devi Yadav is a four-time JD(U) MLA, Ranveer has been trying to get Krishna Kumari Yadav, a national-level athlete, elected to Lok Sabha. She contested 2014 polls last year on an RJD ticket but lost. This year, she couldn’t manage to get a ticket because under the mahagatbandhan seat-sharing formula Khagaria was left for Vikassheel Insan Party (VIP) to contest.

The social capital of crime barons and local strongmen in Bihar was of political use for political parties and their leaders in the first few decades after Independence before the strongmen decided, sometime in the early 90s, to find a way to political power themselves. It has been seen by social scientists, including Arvind Das’ work The Republic of Bihar (Penguin, 1992) as a search for investment and extension of accumulated wealth for that resourceful section in Bihar for whom there didn’t exist any productive avenues. Aiming for political power has certainly been one of the outlets left for them, and they are seeking to use their social reach to that effect.

This, obviously, entails that proxy faces aren’t in short supply in Bihar’s electoral scene. It’s a form of political recruitment that finds its own ways in power arrangements. In the process, some of them acquire a life of their own. None of the wives winning the proxy battles in the poll arena have complained about their tryst with power.

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