Kishanganj: With the voting for the third and final phase of Bihar Assembly elections going on in 78 constituencies in 16 districts today (November 7), all eyes are set on the Seemanchal region — spread across four districts (Araria, Purnea, Kishanganj and Katihar). Around 24 seats in the Muslim-majority region are at stake.
Of these 24 constituencies, Muslim population in eight Assembly segments stands somewhere between 60% to 75%, five have 40% - 60% and the rest eight have 25% to 40%. Demography is a major factor.
Overall, Araria has 43%, Purnea 38.5%, Kishanganj 68% and Katihar 44.5% Muslim population. The total population of the community across the state stands at 16.9%.
There is another difference between this north-eastern part of the state than the rest. While the Muslim concentration is higher in urban areas in other regions, in Seemanchal it is the opposite.
Further among the Hindu population which is lower than the rest of the state, the Yadav community — which has a strong presence across Bihar — has a thin population in Seemanchal.
The area is among the most backward regions (socially, economically and educationally) and got its first and only university — Purnea University — just two years ago in 2018. Against Bihar’s average literacy rate of 64%, the area’s average literacy rate is 54%. Meanwhile, the average per capita income is Rs 10,000 as against Rs 14,574 for the state.
The area witnesses devastating floods every year that damages crops and houses. The paddy crops this year were destroyed just a few weeks before harvest due to floods, making it the third crop of the year to be destroyed. Not only that, the recurrent floods also wash away the roads.
The Mahagathbandhan (Gran Alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Congress and Left parties) presently has 12 MLAs in the region — with Congress holding eight, the RJD three and the CPI (ML) one seat.
The ruling Janata Dal-United or JD(U) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have six seats each. In 2015, the JD(U), the RJD and the Congress fought together, while the BJP had contested with the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and others.
In the 2015 Assembly elections, the Congress tally stood at 27. But this time, the party is contesting 11 seats. In seven of those seats, it is facing a tough challenge from the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM). The strong anti-incumbency against its legislators, who have been representing the constituencies for long, has further made the competition tougher.
A noticeable trend has been that the BJP has often managed to sneak through whenever there has been a division of the Muslim vote. In the 2010 Assembly election, BJP candidate Santosh Kumar Kushwaha managed to win by nearly 10,000 votes from Baisi, a Muslim majority constituency.
The Kishanganj Lok Sabha constituency has six Assembly seats, with four of them (Kishanganj, Bahadurganj, Thankurganj and Kochadhaman) falling under Kishanganj district and the rest two (Baisi and Amour) under Purnea district.
Considered as a bastion of the Congress, Kishanganj (urban) seat appears to have a triangular contest between Congress’ Izharul Hussain, AIMIM’s Qamrul Hoda (who is also the sitting MLA) and BJP’s Sweety Singh.
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“Both the AIMIM and the BJP have fielded good candidates. While Qamrul Hoda is a gentle man who enjoys support across communities, Sweety Singh is also an accessible leader. Despite losing (last time), she has been there in her constituency. But the Congress candidate is the least known person. So, there is a direct fight between the AIMIM and the BJP,” Advocate Pranav Kumar, a public prosecutor and also a hotelier from the region, told NewsClick.
Talking about the possibilities of each party, he said, “The BJP has enough to impact its prospects. The district unit of the party is not supporting Singh wholeheartedly. As a result, the AIMIM has an edge. I won’t be surprised if the rival faction, which was seeking the party’s ticket for its candidate, get a good chunk of votes transferred in favour of the Congress or the AIMIM.”
But Mehmood Alam, a tailor by profession, disagreed, saying a certain division of Muslim votes is set to benefit the BJP. “Though there seems to be no wave for the Congress on this seat, but one must not forget that the constituency has a sizeable population of silent voters, who may vote in favour of the Congress as they traditionally do. If Muslim votes entirely swings to him, he will be victorious. But this will not happen as the AIMIM candidate also enjoys huge support in the community. So, there may be division. On the other hand, Hindu voters across castes will go in favour of the BJP,” he predicted.
In the 2015 Assembly elections, Dr Mohammad Jawed of the Congress had defeated BJP’s Sweety Singh with a margin of 8,609 votes. While Jawed had got 66,522 votes, Singh had bagged 57,913 votes. The Congress had defeated the BJP in 2010 elections too when Azad had secured 38,867 votes and Singh had got 38,603 votes.
The AIMIM opened its account in 2019 when its nominee Qamrul Hoda clinched the seat from the Congress in the bypoll conducted after Azad was elected as MP from the district.
In Bahadurganj constituency, which is also a Congress bastion, Tausif Alam of the Congress is taking on Anzar Alam of the AIMIM and Lakhan Lal Pandit of the Vikassheel Insan Party (VIP) — a part of the NDA.
Muslims (nearly 70%) are the major voting block here. Yadavs, Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe communities too have a small concentration in this constituency.
“Tousif is constesting for the fifth term, and there is a strong anti-incumbency against him because of his inefficiency and poor performance. So, Muslim votes will get divided between him and Anzar Alam. But Tausif seems to have an edge because he is the candidate of the Mahagathbandhan, and he will get votes from other communities as well such as Yadavs, Mushars, Rajvanshis, etc. But this voting block will never go in favour of the AIMIM. Therefore, the Congress candidate seems to have an edge,” said Ashfaq Alam, a chemist belonging to Mahadev Dighi.
Iftekhar Alam, who works in the chemist’s shop, agreed and said, “Bahadurganj has a big chunk of silent voters. It’s true that there is a huge anti-incumbency against him (Tousif), but he will win just because belonging to the Mahagathbandhan because we want a change in the state. The caste equation is supporting him, his prospects are good. The contest is strong, but the VIP is not in the contest at all. The fight is between the Congress and the AIMIM.”
However, not everyone agrees. Md Asif, a resident of the area, told NewsClick, “There will be no division of our votes. We will vote for the AIMIM with an aim to send Tausif a loud and clear message that he cannot always take our votes for granted. The AIMIM has emerged as a credible face here, and we have an option now.”
But at the same time, he clarified that he is against the candidate, not his party or the grand alliance. “We are against the candidate, not the Congress or Mahagathbandhan. We also want to have Tejashwi as the chief minister,” he added.
Congress has won Bahadurganj 10 times since 1951, while the BJP could bag the seat just once in 1955. In the 2015 election, Tausif had defeated BJP’s Awadh Bihari Singh by 13,942 votes.
In Kochadhaman, the JD(U) is seeking to retain its seat. Its nominee Md Mujahid Alam seems to be ahead of all. He is taking on RJD’s Md Shahid Alam, AIMIM’s Md Izhar Asfi and LJP’s Habibur Rahman.
“He is a popular leader because he has performed very well. He has worked on construction of roads, electricity and other welfare works. In all four constituencies in Kishanganj district, majority of road construction works have been carried out here. He enjoys support across communities. He has a proven record, but others have to deliver. He is also accessible to his electorates. It’s true that AIMIM will eat into his share of votes, but still he is the front runner,” said Iftekhar, a resident of the constituency.
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Another resident Z. Alam, however, said the constituency has a triangular fight, with the JD(U) and the RJD engaging in a razor sharp contest. “Apart from Muslims, the constituency has around 38,000 Hindu voters, who include Yadavs and those belonging to extremely backward class (EBC). So, if Mujahid is getting EBC and Muslim votes, Shahid (RJD candidate) will bag Yadav apart from Muslim votes. Therefore, the contest is tough here,” he added.
By securing 55,929 votes, Mujahid Alam had defeated AIMIM nominee Akhtarul Iman, who got 37,086 votes, by 18,843 votes in 2015 Assembly elections. Iman, who is the state president of the AIMIM, was earlier with the RJD and had defeated Mujahid Alam of the JD(U) in 2010 elections by 9,025 votes. The constituency had come into existence in 2010.
In Thakurganj constituency, the fight appears to be between RJD’s Saud Nadvi and Independent candidate Gopal Dhanuka (a former JD-U MLA from the constituency). The AIMIM has given ticket to Hafiz Mahboob who is also putting up a strong fight.
Muslim voters in this constituency also have very strong presence, with them making up somewhere near 70% of the total population. The rest include Marwadis and several other castes.
“The AIMIM here is not a credible force. Because of being Mahagathbandhan candidate, Saud is the front runner. He has an additional advantage of being the son of late Congress MP Maulana Asrarul Haque Qasmi who is revered among voters. Though Gopal Dhanuka performed well when he was elected as the MLA, his chances are not strong as Muslims are of the opinion that he will join hands with the BJP post elections. But it does not mean that he will not get Muslim votes. He has a good number of voters in the community who will vote for him. Therefore, there is direct fight between the Mahagathbandhan and Gopal,” said a resident of Thakurganj’s Mastan Chowk, who did not want to be named.
Two other residents, Anil Sah and Vijay Mandal, also said the fight is between the RJD and the independent candidate. “Though I will go for Gopal because he has worked and was accessible when he was the MLA. I am a BJP voter and we have been asked by the party to support him this election, therefore our vote will go for him,” Sah, who runs a departmental store at Mastan Chowk, told NewsClick.
Mandal, who owns a sweet shop, said he and a majority of his community members will go in favour of the independent candidate.
Others that NewsClick spoke with, however, rejected the chances of Gopal registering victory. “This election is different. This is for change. Since Tejashwi Yadav has a blue print of employment, job creation, development, education, etc, he deserves a chance. Therefore, we are rallying behind him. We don’t have any confusion in our mind” is the common refrain echoed by most in region.
Majority of those who were extremely vocal in favour of Owaisi due to him raising issues in Parliament and his firebrand speeches, though said they were unsure about voting for AIMIM.
In Baisi constituency, there seems to be a triangular fight between RJD’s Abdus Subhan, BJP’s Vinod Yadav and AIMIM’s Syed Ruknuddin.
Subhan, who is contesting for the fourth term, is extremely unpopular in his constituency because of his visible inefficacy. His constituency lacks basic infrastructure such as roads, health and good infrastructure. He also failed to get anything meaningful done to prevent annual devastating floods, according to the residents.
In this situation, Muslim electorates in the constituency are seeing a ray of hope in the AIMIM candidate, who according to them, has been very active for the past few years. Despite anti-incumbency, the RJD candidate is also set to get a sizeable chunk of Muslim votes for the Mahagathbandhan. This can lead to sharp division of Muslim votes, probably clearing way for the BJP to emerge victorious.
Among the Yadavs of the region, a sizeable section of votes may go to the the BJP candidate since he is also a Yadav.
In Amour, there is a nail biting contest between Abdul Jaleel Mastan of the Congress and Akhtarul Iman of the AIMIM.
To make it short, RJD-led Mahagathbandhan seems to have a clear advantage in six Assembly constituencies of Kishanganj Lok sabh seat, while the AIMIM, which is contesting 16 seats in the third round, may cut into the grand alliance’s votes and likely to win one-two seats.
The NDA also faces tough challenge in Purnea, which also has seven constituencies. In Purnea (Sadar) constituency, Indu Sinha of the Congress is giving a tough fight to BJP’s Vijay Khemka.
Though there is a strong anti-incumbency against Khemka, who is the sitting MLA from here, Purnea urban has been a traditional stronghold of the saffron party for the past 35 years. Even though, voters here in fact are not supporting Khemka, but inclined to vote for the BJP because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Congress nominee has not done good field work in the run up of the elections. However, she will have an advantage of being the Mahagathbandhan candidate.
Muslims voters, who constitute around 30% of the total voters here are also sounding in favour of Sinha because she did not come out in support of the protest against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). There are two Muslim independent candidates contesting the election from this seat.
However, strong presence of Yadav voters may boost her prospects. The constituency has 55% SC/ST voters 10% OBCs and 5% ‘upper’ caste voters. If Yadav votes consolidate in favour of the Mahagathbandhan and Sinha manages to secure a chunk SC/ST votes, she will have good chances of winning.
People’s anger against Khemka can be gauged by the fact that he faced protests during campaigning at several places where his hoardings and posters were torn. He could not dare to visit few pockets, fearing strong opposition to his candidatures.
“It’s a fact that he (Khemka) does not do anything for the development of the town. The votes the BJP is likely to secure will be because of Modi factor, not for the local candidate,” said a BJP worker, requesting anonymity.
In Kasbaa constituency, the fight is between Lok Janshakti Party’s Pradeep Das and Congress’ Afaq Alam who has been MLA from here for the past 10 years. Former BJP leader Das, who was seeking the saffron party’s ticket to contest this election, switched over to the LJP after the seat went to Hindustani Awan Morcha (HAM) led by former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi.
Despite being the NDA candidate, HAM’s Rajendra Yadav is nowhere in the picture.
Alam seems to have a clear edge because of his popularity in his constituency and support of caste equation. The seat has around 43% Muslim votes, 13.5% SCs, 20% Kushwaha and 30% dalits. Brahmin, Bhumihar and Rajput together constitute three percent of the total voters here.
Alam enjoys support across castes, and he is considered a “liberal face” of the grand alliance.
In Dhamdaha, JD(U) has fielded Lesi Singh against RJD’s Dilip Yadav. Singh has a clear edge as she has performed as an MLA.
In Rupauli, Vikas Chandra of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) is in the fray as Mahagathbandhan candidate against JD(U)’s Bima Bharti and LJP’s Shankar Singh.
Bharti’s chances to win the election from here seems to be strong as the seat has good presence of the Mandal community (a sub-caste of Kurmis), which votes for the JD(U).
In SC reserved Banmankhi seat, there is direct fight is between Krishna Kumar Rishi of the BJP and Upendra Sharma of the RJD. Rishi is the cultural minister in the state government and seems to have an edge.
The NDA also facesa tough fight in Araria and Katihar district where the grand alliance candidates seem to have upper hand. There is huge support for CPI (ML) candidate Mehboob Alam from Balrampur.
There also seems to be tough contest between Congress nominee and an independent candidate at Pranpur in Katihar.
In this final phase, on the total 78 seats, the JD(U) 37, the BJP 35, the HAM 1 and the VIP 5 in the NDA. In Mahagathbandhan, the RJD is contesting on 46 seats, the Congress 25, the CPI(ML) 5 and the CPI 2. AIMIM is trying its luck in 16 constituencies.