In Bihar’s Karakat, battle of prestige for Upendra Kushwaha and Nitish Kumar

It’s a must-win election for the RLSP chief who left the NDA ahead of the election as it rejected his demand for three seats.

At 4 p.m. on May 13, the afternoon sun began losing its sting while Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) chief Upendra Kushwaha was addressing a rally in Nokha. A crowd of a few hundred people, with most sporting RLSP caps, sat or stood around drenched in sweat and listened as Mr. Kushwaha spoke, mopping his brow frequently with a handkerchief.

“I contest only against either CM or PM… earlier in 2014, I came here fighting against CM Nitish Kumar, now I have come fighting PM Narendra Modi,” said Mr. Kushwaha, whose love-hate relationship with Mr. Kumar is well known in the State.

Ahead of the Lok Sabha election, Mr. Kushwaha parted ways with the National Democratic Alliance after his demand for three seats was rejected. He joined hands with the grand alliance led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal, obtaining five seats in the bargain. “I thank RJD chief Laluji [Lalu Prasad] for giving me five seats to contest,” Mr. Kushwaha said. “He is the only courageous leader who can fight against the BJP and Narendra Modi… after coming out of jail, Laluji will take on the BJP and Narendra Modi, while I will take care of Nitish Kumar,” he said.

The comment seemed to energise the crowd, which cheered the remarks with slogans of “Upendra Kushwaha zindabad”. RJD MLA Anita Choudhury too appealed to the crowd to vote for Mr. Kushwaha to strengthen the hands of Mr. Prasad.

“The Karakat seat has basically become a prestige seat for Nitish Kumar as well as for Upendra Kushwaha,” said Lokendra Prasad, a small-time businessman in the Nokha bazaar. “They both have been friend-turned-foe several times … so both are pulling strings to defeat each other,” he said, adding that he preferred to vote for the BJP, “better to say, for Modiji”.

The RLSP chief is contesting two seats: Karakat and Ujiyarpur. In Ujiyarpur, where he was pitted against BJP State president Nityanand Rai, polling was held in the fourth phase on April 29.

After about 10 minutes, Mr. Kushwaha wrapped up the speech and left for another public meeting. “It’s not 2014, the battle this time is very tough… only speeches will not do,” said the mechanic who soon dismantled the public address system. “Will you ruin my business,” he asked rhetorically with a smile when asked to give his name. Soon, he too left, carrying the speakers, wires and microphones on a cart.

At a distance, a group of young men stood around a motorcycle fitted with a TV screen, on which a video appeal for Samajwadi Party candidate Ghanshaym Tiwari was being played. “The contest is between NDA candidate Mahabali Singh and mahagathbandhan [grand alliance] nominee Upendra Kushwaha… both are from the Koeri OBC caste and whoever gets the Dalit vote this time besides the support of their own caste group will win,” said Arvind Kumar, an unemployed youth. Others around him nodded in agreement. “Yes, he is right,” they said.

Nokha is one of the six Assembly segments of Karakat. While Mr. Singh of the JD(U) won the seat in 2009, Mr. Kushwaha bagged it in 2014, defeating Kanti Singh of the RJD. In 2015, four of the six Assembly constituencies were won by the RJD, while the JD(U) and the BJP bagged one each.

While Mr. Kushwaha had the support of the BJP and benefited from the “Modi wave” in 2014, this time he could find the going tougher, especially since there is talk of a possible sabotage by a local RJD leader who was denied ticket. “Besides, the CPI-ML candidate and BSP and SP candidates too would eat into his vote bank,” said Rajendra Singh of Obra.

The caste arithmetic in Karakat shows that Koeris, Rajputs and Yadavs are dominant with about two lakh votes each followed by Muslims, Brahmins, Bhumihars and Scheduled Caste voters. “The upper caste and Scheduled Caste voters have always played a deciding factor for the winning candidate here,” Ajit Kumar, a local journalist, said. “Whoever gets that, will win the poll this time too.”

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