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Why Shatrughan Sinha is khamosh, failing to gain from BJP’s Bihar infighting

Failing to break open the disenchanted and fractious BJP voter, the start campaigner is becoming a victim of his own mismanagement and ineffectual outreach.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: May 15, 2019, 01.18 PM IST
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Make no mistake, Sinha is still adored and admired, especially among middle-aged voters.
PATNA SAHIB: As the evening progressed, a fight broke out over cups of lassi.

You can choose to blame the Patna heat wave, hot headed temper tantrums or even bruised egos but on the 6th of May, the very evening when Mahagathbandhan candidate Shatrughan Sinha was inaugurating the party head office of Patna Sahib legislative assembly in Kakarbagh, adult men and women, mostly Congress workers, started jostling, shouting, elbowing each other and scrambling for an extra cup was arguably a new low in any campaigning.

As if Patna, a bustling metropolis of contradictions, where Gandhi and gotra still cohabitat in public spaces, parks and museums as does caste confabulations and class prejudices – has not had enough.

Back in March the internecine rivalry, simmering discontent and BJP’s state level factionalism had exposed its ugly head when supporters of election aspirant, Union law and information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Rajya Sabha MP RK Sinha clashed, exchanged blows at the Patna airport in full public glare.

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Caste, power politics and generational change had made Patna’s paradoxes almost combustible and the elections thrilling. But with less than a week of polling, this high decibel contest at BJP’s “gargh” is turning out to be a whimper. A case of missed opportunities for the RJD-Congress led alliance and it’s Bihari Babu “Shotgun” Sinha, seeking a hat-trick from his home turf.

Failing to break open the disenchanted and fractious BJP voter, the star campaigner is becoming a victim of his own mismanagement and ineffectual outreach. A lacklustre campaign largely in fits and starts and only try to up the tempo seems too little too late. The crumbling Congress party infrastructure with volunteers more fussed about a feast than favourable vote share is not helping either.

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“In the beginning, he had a great chance,” feels a senior BJP functionary, agitated at his party’s decision to field Prasad, a Lok Sabha candidate for the first time. “He had to only focus four of the six Assembly constituencies – Kumhrar, Digha, Fatuha and Bhaktiarpur – that are Yadav and Rajput dominated. But he’s busy campaigning all over the country to focus on his home turf.”

VOTE CONSOLIDATION
The constituency was ripe for a BJP backlash. Of the total 20 lakh voters, close to 3.5 lakh Yadav and Muslims votes were already waiting to be seized upon. “Even if 50% polled in Sinha’s favour, you would have led the race with 1.75 lakh votes from the very start,” added another old time RSS associate on condition of anonymity.

Unlike 2014, the Yadavs are expected to vote anti BJP en masse as a sympathy wave is sweeping Bihar in favour of jailed Lalu Prasad. The Muslims in any case will not vote for the BJP. A 31% Yadav-Muslim captive vote bank was therefore a great edge that he just let it slip away largely due to his absenteeism.

“Where is our MP?” asks Santosh Agarwal, a residence of Nala Road in Kadam Kuan, Sinha’s old neighbourhood. “He does not come here much but stays at Maurya Hotel instead.”

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Shatrughan has proactively started campaigning from beginning of May and his wife who managed his campaign in 2014 has joined him only last week. In comparison, Prasad has been campaigning in the city from day one, right after his candidature was announced over 3 months ago.

“If you don’t go to voters. Why will they vote for you?” asks another Nala Road resident who runs a popular neighbourhood paan shop.

For Shatrughan though, this is an unfair accusation. “This is my home city. I know her problems, her people,” says the irrepressible actor in his typical animated fashion, driving across Gandhi Maidan after a busy day’s campaign. “For some this is a new city. Not for me having represented Patna for 10 years.” The jibe at his challenger, a thakur from Jaunpur, who has been describing himself as Patna ka Gully boy is quite evident.

Make no mistake, the one-liners fired from the Shatru’s gun still sells. Middle aged men and women still adore and admire him. The deep booming voice resonates as much as his performance so far with much improved healthcare, road infrastructure in and around the city. But at 72, often the Sinha spunk goes missing and he looks weary, lacking in zest to reinvigorate himself and his campaign.

“Even for the millennials, there is a curiosity factor working. His roadshows and rally still attract considerable crowd. But are they there for selfies or for votes is anyone’s guess,” acknowledges a Congress worker, involved in the campaign on condition of anonymity.

THE K FACTOR
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Shatrughan had polled 5.86 lakh votes, around 55 per cent of the voter turnout. His nearest rival, Kunal Singh (also an actor) of the Congress, had got 2.2 lakh votes, around 25 per cent of the turnout. Sinha is confident he will improve further.

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“With the support and love of the people, I can create a new record this time and improve last time’s record of the highest vote share margin,” he quips with a broad grin on his face.

However, for this to happen, along with Yadav-Muslims, Shatrughan also needs to break the Kayastha voter who make up 22 to 23 per cent of the electorate. Both Shatrughan and Prasad hail from this caste and were thus cherry-picked.

In Bihar, the upper caste Brahmins, Bhumihars, Kayasthas and Rajputs used to always be with the Congress till Jayaprakash Narayan, also a kayastha, broke the Congress hegemony. Gradually this block migrated towards the BJP as a new social combination of the intermediate castes like Yadavs emerged stronger.

Based on 2015 numbers, there are 20.5 lakh voters in the whole constituency of which 4 lakh plus are Kayastha voters concentrated around the mercantile and trading areas of Bankipur, Digha, Fatuha Kumhrar areas where they alone constitute 75% of the electorate.

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Other upper castes – around 4 lakh Rajputs, 2 lakh Bhumihars, Brahmins that together constitute the “forward block” and have overwhelmingly been Modi supporters even if GST and demonetisation had hit them hard. “Idhar kamal hi khilegi,” quipped Shyam Sinha, a garments shopkeeper in Digha, paraphrasing the sentiments of close to 2 lakh Vaishya or Baniya voters as well.

But breaking the Kayastha voter was believed to be the easiest due to the wide spread disenchantment within local BJP over Prasad’s candidature. “With the Yadav-Muslim vote, all that Shatrughan had to do was to cash in on the disillusionment and split the Kayasthas,” explained a Congress office worker who did not wish to be quoted.

To wean some of them away in the past, Shatrughan had successfully used his wife Poonam, a Sindhi herself, as the trump card to reach out to her community of businessmen and traders. But this time, with her focus on her own seat in Lucknow, she remained distracted. “She could have seriously disbalanced her community,” feels Abhighyan Pandey, an old BJP sympathiser from Kumhrar.

Shatrughan is confident that he still can. Just like the poor farmer, the small trader too has suffered the most due to a complicated GST and demonetisation. “They have seen even when I was in BJP, I was vocal in my criticism. They trust my honesty and transparency,” he says.

Why then is he not aggressively going for the jugular or breaking BJP’s back?

The Patna Sahib constituency is divided into 72 mandals by the BJP, each one being presided over by a Mandal adhyaksh who distributes pamphlets, mobilises voters at the booth level and even campaigns for the party. This is the fulcrum of the BJP’s sangathan nationally, it’s backbone. And interestingly, a large section of this sangathan, said people from the party, have disassociated themselves from the Prasad campaign after the popular choice RK Sinha, who has strong socio-economic links with at least 55 such mandals through his corporate CSR programmes, was denied a ticket.

“A large section of BJP’s core voter, volunteers and party functionaries would shift overnight if Shatrughan Sinha had sought the help of this disgruntled lot. He still has good rapport with many of the old BJP-RSS members in the state,” said an old time member. “Why he is not is quite baffling.”

Instead, Shatrughan’s campaign primarily focusses on BJP’s one-man show and two-man army of Prime Minster Modi and Amit Shah. On the ground, it often does fail to arouse the young voter still at awe. “That’s misguidance by BJP’s false propanganda machine. Their anger is simmering,” he argues. “Just go to the villages and ask about job losses or farm distress… The youth everywhere are feeling cheated.” His focus, if voted back to power, will be them. “Next 5 years, my focus should be on the younger generation – their education, health. We need to change people’s mindsets.”

Last weekend saw mega BJP rallies of Amit Shah held to show support for Prasad. Shatrughan too is leaning on Rahul Gandhi to campaign later this week and woo first time voters. The coalition is bringing together new allies across caste as well as caste lines. “You lose some (vote bank), but then you gain some other too,” he argues. “Modi has been subverting institutions and diverting attention from the real issues like jobs, farm distress like a master craftsman. But our social coalition will work most in Patna. Every corner of the state is looking at it’s capital and all anti Modi forces will converge here.”

If only they galvanised sooner.

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