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Proxy wars in Siwan

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HIGH STAKES: Heena Shahab, wife of Mohammed Shahabuddin, with Rashtriya Janata Dal president Lalu Prasad after filing her nomination papers for election to the Lok Sabha from Siwan. –
HIGH STAKES: Heena Shahab, wife of Mohammed Shahabuddin, with Rashtriya Janata Dal president Lalu Prasad after filing her nomination papers for election to the Lok Sabha from Siwan. –

K. Balchand

The main contender remains indoors and does not even come out to campaign let alone address the electorate.

Meet Heena Shahab, wife of Mohammed Shahabuddin, the Rashtriya Janata Dal Member of Parliament who is currently serving a life term in Siwan Jail. With the courts refusing to stay or suspend the conviction and not permitting him to contest the upcoming Lok Sabha poll, the RJD has fielded his wife to fight the battle of the ballot from the Muslim-dominated Siwan constituency.

Ms. Shahab shared the dais with the RJD chief, Union Railway Minister Lalu Prasad, soon after filing her nomination papers and then with Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt. Party insiders say that she doesn’t even supervise her election campaign which is under the control of two RJD leaders of the district. Others point out that Mr. Shahabuddin has such a well-oiled machinery at his command that it operates on its own and needs no direction.

His opponents, however, charge that Mr. Shahabuddin has been calling the shots from within the jail. The RJD candidate is banking on her husband and the sympathy factor which seems to be working at least among the Muslims from which community no other candidate is in the race here.

Siwan is a transformed constituency after Mr. Shahabuddin hit the scene in 1996 when he entered the Lok Sabha for the first time. Since then, he has continued to represent the constituency in Parliament without a break for almost 13 years now. It is his wife who is in the forefront notwithstanding her shyness.

Political activity, too, is visible: people openly discussing the goings-on, buzzing election offices and blaring campaign vehicles on the move. All these democratic processes were missing in elections past not too long ago.

The other candidates in the fray consider Mr. Shahabuddin their real opponent and not his wife. The objective is to polarise votes in their favour on the basis of the struggle they have waged against him all these years.

That is precisely why an Independent candidate and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) are much ahead of the Janata Dal (United) in challenging the stronghold of Mr. Shahabuddin. The JD (U) candidate, Brishen Patel, is almost out of the reckoning having lost the trust of the voters who consider him an outsider and are angry that he never cared to visit the constituency after winning the seat in 1991.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar gave the party ticket to Mr. Patel, who belongs to his caste, ignoring the claims of Om Prakash Yadav who had lost the 2004 election. Having polled substantially then and ending up as runner-up, Mr. Yadav has thrown his hat into the ring this time round as an Independent, rebelling against his party.

The CPI (M-L), which was the first to challenge Mr. Shahabuddin’s stranglehold, has fielded Amarnath Yadav, who had performed well in the 1999 election despite losing to Mr. Shahabuddin.

The Congress has put up former Minister Vijay Shankar Dubey, while the Bahujan Samaj Party has fielded Parasnath Pathak, both of whom have their pockets of influence.

While all eyes are on the Independent candidate, it is a tough job for Mr. Yadav to actually muster enough support to match the voter base of Mr. Shahabuddin. CPI (M-L) leader Kunal maintains that his party alone enjoys mass support at the ground level thanks to its struggles on various issues including land reforms and wages.

A French student has joined the campaign in support of the CPI (M-L).

She has already canvassed in about a dozen villages and maintains that the battle is against Mr. Shahabuddin and not his wife.

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