The stage is set for the June 2 by-election to the Maharajganj parliamentary constituency in Bihar with campaigning coming to an end on Friday. Political parties are locked in a fierce battle, whose results, observers and political leaders say, have implications for future political manoeuvring not just in Bihar but at the national level as well.

At the heart of it, the contest is more a face-off between Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his arch rival and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad, than their respective candidates, with the Lok Sabha polls slated for 2014.

“This election will impact the Lok Sabha elections as well as the next Assembly elections,” RJD State president Ramchandra Purve told The Hindu . Navin Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) also considered it “a very important election that will indicate which party will emerge stronger.”

“It will send a message at the national level. This is a fight between Nitish and Lalu,” Nawal Kishore Chaudhary, professor at the Patna University and a political commentator told The Hindu .

“If the JD(U) loses Maharajganj, people will see it as a vote against Nitish. It will put a question mark on his good governance, credibility and claim to a third term in Bihar. It also will put a question mark on his prime ministerial ambitions, though he has been denying them. Lalu, on the other hand, is seeing it as a window of opportunity to send a message that he is the future,” Mr. Chaudhary said.

All political parties have therefore been canvassing hard. Most of the JD(U) Ministers have reportedly been camping in Maharajganj for days. Mr. Kumar held a number of rallies. Mr. Prasad did road shows with son Tejaswi Yadav. The Congress lined up a string of national leaders, including Union Ministers of State Rajiv Shukla, Sachin Pilot and R.P.N. Singh, MP and actor Raj Babbar and national spokesperson Shakeel Ahmed, apart from the State leaders.

Candidates

The Maharajganj Lok Sabha constituency comprises six Vidhan Sabha seats spread over two districts — Saran and Siwan. The by-election has been necessitated by the death of RJD MP Umashankar Singh.

Mr. Kumar’s old aide and Bihar’s Education Minister Prashant Kumar Shahi of the Janata Dal (United) is the NDA candidate. The JD(U) and BJP are running a coalition government in the State.

RJD chief Lalu Prasad has fielded Prabhunath Singh, a tall Rajput leader and a three-time MP from the area, whose earlier victories were as a JD(U) candidate. Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Jan Shakti Party is backing the RJD candidate. Adding a third dimension to the otherwise two-pronged race, the Congress has put up Jitendra Swami, son of the deceased RJD MP Umashankar Singh.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Prabhunath Singh contested on a JD(U) ticket and lost to Umashankar Singh. After the State Assembly elections in 2010, he switched over to the RJD.

The Maharajganj vote base is heavily dominated by the Bhumihar and Rajput castes. Though parties have denied the caste factor, pitching a development agenda instead, the choice of their candidates belies their claim. JD(U)’s Mr. Shahi is a Bhumihar, whereas RJD’s Mr. Singh and Congress’ Mr. Swami are Rajputs.

“Earlier, the constituency was totally Rajput-dominated. After delimitation, Bhumihar areas got included in it. Thus, it now has an almost equal number of Bhumihar and Rajput voters,” Chandan Yadav of the Congress told The Hindu .

It remains to be seen to what extent Mr. Swami is able to hurt Mr. Singh by eating into his Rajput vote base. The Congress on Friday denied the charge that it put up a candidate just to cut votes and claimed the party intended to strengthen its base in Bihar.

Rapprochement

Meanwhile, the recent rapprochement between Mr. Kumar and his close friend Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan Singh, a Bhumihar, is also read as a move likely to influence the caste vote in Maharajganj. With Mr. Kumar’s schemes for mahadalit and dalits, the NDA is also hoping to earn the dalit votes.

“Initially,” said Mr. Chaudhary, “it was said the BJP wanted to see Mr. Kumar humiliated in Maharajganj and the Congress was interested in seeing Mr. Prasad cut to size. But it seems the BJP and JD(U) have come to an understanding that if the NDA loses this seat, it will send a wrong message. So now, the two parties have put in joint efforts.”


  • The by-poll is seen as a face-off between Nitish and Lalu

  • “If JD(U) loses the seat, people will see it as a vote against Nitish”