At the small market centre in Haidarnagar, an area with a significant presence of the Maoists, the roads are lined with red flags stitched with images of Hanuman. It is Ram Navami the next day. At the crossroads at the centre of shops, a mini truck is blaring songs in Bhojpuri announcing the nukkad sabha of the sitting MP Kameshwar Baitha.

In 2009, Kameshwar Baitha did the unprecedented by becoming the first former Maoist leader to reach Parliament. This former zonal commander of the Koel-Sankh zone of the CPI(Maoist) along the Jharkhand-Chhattisgarh border had contested the elections while in Sasaram jail, Bihar, and won after defeating heavyweights such as Ghuran Ram, then in the RJD. He remained in jail for more than two years after being elected MP, getting bail only in late 2011.

Baitha switched from Jharkhand Mukti Morcha to the Trinamool Congress last month after it was made public that the Rashtriya Janata Dal will field its candidate Manoj Bhuian from here from among the ruling coalition’s partners — the JMM, Congress, RJD. The constituency is reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates. Among Baitha’s rivals this time is former Director General of Police Jharkhand Vishnu Dayal Ram, who is known for his term as Superintendent of Police in Bhagalpur at the time of the Bhagalpur blindings.

At Haidarnagar, Kameshwar Baitha arrives in a white kurta pyjama and makes a brisk round of the market to shake hands with shopkeepers. He is stocky, has matted hair, and sports a big, black moustache. He promptly climbs perches himself at the top of a jeep to start addressing those gathered.

“When I walked with guns as a Maoist, I realised three things ail Palamu — unemployment, akaal (drought), and Naxalvaad (Naxalism). Mothers send their children to wash dishes in hotels or carry dung at landlords’ farms. Adults here migrate in distress to work in more developed States. Unemployment, hunger, oppression, and destruction of our culture give rise to Naxalvaad. Operation Greenhunt can never end it,” says Baitha, as a crowd of men listens intently, while women watch from afar.

“The biggest oppression is to kill someone’s dreams. That is what BJP has done by fielding V.D. Ram. Will a poor child have to become DGP V.D. Ram first to become a MP?” says Baitha who approached BJP for a ticket after quitting JMM last month but was turned down.

“By electing me, you made a social revolution possible. But I ask for you to vote again to make an economic revolution this time,” he concludes, offering sattu (gram flour) water to those gathered.

Back in his white SUV, Baitha explains what he means by economic revolution. “Palamu is an agricultural area. For the poor’s lives to improve, the farmers need more watershed projects to irrigate their fields. Palamu’s farmers need effective land redistribution” he says.

Baitha, born in a mine worker’s family in a village in Vishrampur, recollects he had joined Party Unity in the 1980s after the Arwal massacre in Bihar after organizing Palamu Gareeb Mazdoor Sangh between 1974 and 1980, which he said focused on farm workers from lower castes.