Bihar Assembly elections | This independent candidate gets a leg-up from Jean Dreze

Jean Dreze   | Photo Credit: Amarnath Tewary

The poll campaign in the Kurhani Assembly constituency of Muzaffarpur district is similar to that in the other 243 constituencies of Bihar, except that noted economist Jean Dreze and a group of student volunteers from different parts of the country have been camping in a village for the last 10 days to support Independent candidate Sanjay Sahni.

Mr. Sahni, a class VII dropout, is a popular MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) activist in the area and closely associated with the Belgian-born Indian economist and social scientist Mr. Dreze, RTI activists Nikhil Dey, Aruna Roy and others.

Along with Mr. Dreze, a group of eight student volunteers from Hyderabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Jharkhand and Bihar too have come to root for Mr. Sahni in the election.

Every day, braving the sultry climate and the scorching sun, students Xara Khan, Shailja Tondon, Achyuthan, Vipul, Anil Vyom, Nikhil and Piyush Fozan hit the dusty village tracks along with Mr. Sahni and a group of village women for campaign in the constituency dominated by Scheduled Castes and Extremely Backward Caste people.

Mr. Dreze too accompanies them sometimes but mostly stays at the camp office handling strategy and social media for the candidate.

“The sheer energy of the candidate and of the young student volunteers is inspiring…here you can see democracy in action with the participation of poor and disadvantaged people in the campaign”, Mr. Dreze told The Hindu when asked why he had come to this remote place in Bihar to campaign for a candidate contesting Assembly elections.

Ms. Tondon, who studied at JNU and now works at the Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities in Delhi, and Ms. Khan, a fresh pass-out from Rishi Valley School in Hyderabad, travel several kilometres daily on their foot to be with the village’s women campaigners and guide them from time to time to cover their faces with mask.

Independent candidate Sanjay Sahni campaigns in his Kurhani Assembly constituency

Independent candidate Sanjay Sahni campaigns in his Kurhani Assembly constituency   | Photo Credit: Amarnath Tewary


“The reason I chose to come to Kurhani to campaign for Sanjayji is because I want to be part of a counter-movement against the systematic attack on democracy”, said Ms. Tandon, while for Ms. Khan “it was an opportunity to absorb the women campaigners’ strength and hope for future struggles”.

“I’ve never participated in any political campaign before…also when I read Jean’s latest book Sense and Solidarity and came to know that he is coming here for campaign, I couldn’t resist coming here for the campaign, though my parents were a bit scared for me”, said 17-year-old Ms. Khan, wiping beads of sweat from her forehead with her stole wrapped tightly around her face.

Mr. Achyuthan, Mr. Fozan and Mr. Nikhil too are with them learning “new ropes of democracy”. They do not want any change in Bihar’s governance but a “transformation” that could eventually bring out structural changes in society.

Mr. Dreze and Mr. Vyom are at the camp office at Mahant-Maniyari in Ratnauli village of the constituency to analyse data, be in touch with people on social media and welcome the visitors as well.

The local villagers are amused to see a foreigner speaking in Hindi and staying put with them 24x7 for the last 10 days. They know that Mr. Dreze is a famous economist but do not know about his contribution to the MGNREGA.

“Yes, we know him…he is a very famous eekonomisst of the country…students from big cities of rich families too have come to support Sanjay Sahni, a local lad who has been working for us to get our right to work under MGNREGA for last several years”, said Anita Devi, Mandeshri Devi and Indu Devi at Mahant Maniyari village.

Sanjay Sahni, in his mid-thirties, too feels proud and honoured that he is getting support from Mr. Dreze and the student volunteers for campaign. “Though I’ve have been working with Jean Dreze and other activists like Nikhil Dey, Aruna Roy and others, I had not imagined that they would come here to be with me for my campaign”, Mr. Sahni said, while campaigning in Rampur village.

Since 2013, Mr. Sahni runs a group named Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sangathan for villagers to get their right to work under the MGNREGA and ration under Public Distribution System (PDS) in Kurhani block of the district.

Earlier, he was working as an electrician and had a stall on the pavement of Janakpuri area of Delhi.

One day, in August 2011, he strayed into a cyber café on the other side of the road and typed “NREGA Bihar” and the search engine gave him all the details of MGNREGA related to his village, Ratnauli. “I had heard that if you type anything on Google, you would find the answer”, he said. Later, armed with the printouts, he returned to his village to confront the local authorities for gross misuse, scam and fabrication in numbers and payments to the innocent villagers.

“People are now aware of their rights and have learnt to question authorities about their rights”, he said, flashing a smile on his face.

The Kurhani constituency is steeped in poverty and the majority of people are poor and downtrodden.

“Do you know your rights now? …will you allow contractors and mukhias (village heads) to deny you work under MGNREGA and ration under PDS like they used to earlier?”, Mr. Sahni asked a gathering of mostly women.

“No,” they said in chorus.

But, what will be Mr. Sahni’s first task, if he wins the poll? “I’ll open a help centre at the Kurhani block office where all work will be done for the villagers at one desk”, he said quickly.

“This gives me faith in a candidate like Sanjay Sahni who is keeping the democratic values alive…people like him must be in our Assembly to help us make progress as a State”, said Mr. Dreze.

Mr. Sahni is pitted against sitting NDA candidate Kedar Gupta (BJP) and RJD nominee Anil Sahni. Kurhani goes to the polls in the third phase on November 7.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 7:48:53 AM |

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