The Lady Bahubalis of Bihar in the fray

Three wives of strongmen from Purnea, Munger, and Sheohar are standing for the Lok Sabha election. Amarnath Tewary tracks them on their campaign trails as they meet people to garner support for votes while looking to topple their adversaries against all challenges

Updated - May 11, 2024 10:23 pm IST

Published - May 11, 2024 09:50 pm IST - Patna

JD (U) leader Lovely Anand during canvassing in Bihar’s Sheohar.

JD (U) leader Lovely Anand during canvassing in Bihar’s Sheohar. | Photo Credit: Amarnath Tewary

Lovely Anand, 57, sits on the top floor of the dark, musty three-storeyed Bihar Hotel in Sheohar town. “My husband is not a bahubali (strongman) but a kalambali (penman). It is the media that has given the name,” she says of Anand Mohan Singh, 70.

Lovely is contesting the 2024 Lok Sabha poll from Bihar’s Sheohar constituency, from where Singh had been MP twice, in 1996 and 1998, before he served a 16-year jail term for the murder of a District Magistrate. She descends the staircase, and drives about 10 km to Nayagaon village in the Dumri panchayat. The first family she meets says flatly they will not be voting for her, but for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“Your family has been unapproachable and inaccessible for all of us here after your son won the Assembly poll in 2020,” the middle-aged man tells her. She rushes through the visit, saying she is busy, and needs to proceed.

“I promise that will change,” says Lovely, later telling people that a railway bridge and a hospital will come up.

Her older son Chetan Anand is the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) legislator from Sheohar but before the Nitish Kumar government sought a trust vote in the State Assembly in February 2024, he switched his loyalty to Kumar and his party Janata Dal (United — JD(U). Days after, his mother got a ticket from the JD(U) to contest the Lok Sabha election from Sheohar.

In Bihar, several mukhiapatis (village heads’ husbands) wield power in rural politics, with their wives being elected mukhias (village heads). “In Bihar ‘Mrs. Bahubalis’ are in the fray from both the JD (U) and the RJD in this Lok Sabha election. This is nothing new for us. We know it’s their husbands who are actually contesting,” says Maheshwar Singh, in his 80s says, on the outskirts of Nayagaon. The law prohibits convicts jailed for over two years from contesting elections until six years of their release.

Confident of success

“Had Anand Mohan Singh been born during the British reign, he would have been a krantikari (revolutionary). He comes from the family of freedom fighters,” says Lovely.

While Singh was in Saharsa jail, he had written books like Qaid Mein Azad Kalam (The Pen is Free Even in Captivity), Swadhin Abhivyakti (Free Speech), and two more. “He also wrote a story on the life of mountain man Dasrath Manjhi titled ‘Parwat-Purush-Dasrath’, which was included in the Class VIII CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) course book,” says Lovely of the book that also contains stories from Hindi literary legends like Prem Chand, Jaishankar, and Mahadevi Verma.

Standing opposite her is Ritu Jaiswal of the RJD. While Lovely is a Rajput, Jaiswal is from the Vaishya Other Backward Classes (OBC) community that constitute about 25% of the population here. “I do not want to comment on others. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the biggest leader of the Vaishya community, and being a Rajput I’ll get their support naturally. So, where is the challenge?” Lovely asks, unflappably.

Lovely is from Saharsa and Jaiswal from Sitamarhi, so both face the challenge of being considered “outsiders” by the voters. People at Zero Mile Chowk, at the heart of town, wonder what interest either of them would have in the development of Sheohar, one of Bihar’s smallest districts.

Bahubali bride

Besides Lovely, Anita Kumari Mahto, 45, who married Ashok Mahto in March this year, is standing from Munger, 180 kilometres east of Patna, on an RJD ticket.

RJD candidate Anita Kumari Mahto with her husband Ashok Mahto in Munger.

RJD candidate Anita Kumari Mahto with her husband Ashok Mahto in Munger. | Photo Credit: Amarnath Tewary

Munger district has been in the news every year since the times of the Raj, when the police bust illegal arms manufacturing units, from kattas (country-made revolver) to fake Kalashnikov rifles. In this otherwise oddly colonial town, where the Indian Railway’s has its oldest and largest locomotive repair workshop at Jamalpur, Anita, who is originally from Munger, is at home here.

Until two months ago, Anita had worked as a chief pharmacist at the Northern Railway Central hospital in Delhi for three years. Marriages are “fixed from above” she declares, at the proposal she received from her “caste and community people”. She married Mahto, about whose past she had no idea, at a temple in Bakhtiyarpur, about 30 km away from the State capital.

Mahto had been in jail for 17 years before his release in November 2023. He was convicted in the 2000 Apsadh massacre in which 12 upper caste people were killed, but broke out of the Nawada prison in 2001. He was convicted in the 2005 murder of five-time MLA and two-time MP Rajo Singh. The absconding Mahto was arrested in 2006 from Pakur in Jharkhand by the Nawada police.

A part of the Other Backward Classes (OBC), Mahto had taken a vow not to marry. “There was no guarantee of life in the days I was fighting for the downtrodden,” he says of his life in his pre-jail days. He is sitting in an abandoned milk parlour in Munger town, near Notre Dame School. “We plan things in life, but something else happens. The plan is fixed from above,” he says, echoing his wife.

Two days after their wedding, the couple was seen coming out of the official residence of former Chief Minister Rabri Devi in Patna where she lives with her husband and RJD chief Lalu Prasad and other family members.

Mahto says they had gone to Prasad to seek his blessings. A day after, the newly-wed bride was named a candidate.

Everywhere she goes to campaign, her husband is by her side. She is pitted against two-time MP, who is also NDA candidate and former ruling JD(U) president Rajiv Ranjan Singh, alias Lalan Singh.

On the day of Id, April 11, Anita and Mahto and scores of supporters were campaigning in Eidgah area of Munger town. Anita refuses to speak about the support of Muslim voters, responding in English, “I can’t comment, as I’ve come here for prayer. I’m getting the support of everyone here across caste and religious lines.” She boards an SUV. “I’m here to win. Once I do, justice and the rights to the poor and marginalised will be my priority,” she adds, with the ease of a long-time politician, though she has been doing this for just over a month. Mahto lingers; a white sports car waits for him.

Defending to win

Former Bihar Minister Bima Bharti being presented with a party membership slip by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav. File

Former Bihar Minister Bima Bharti being presented with a party membership slip by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav. File | Photo Credit: ANI

Bima Bharti, 49, who stood from Purnea says her husband, Awadhesh Mandal, is in jail, in what she calls a “false and flimsy” cases of murder and kidnapping, among others. She is a five-time MLA from the JD(U) from Rupauli in Purnea, until February, when she joined the RJD, a part of the Opposition’s mahagathbandhan (grand alliance). She travels with a fleet of SUVs and there are more than 100 people waiting for her in her office, waving to catch her attention.

In high heels and rings on eight fingers for astrological reasons, Bharti alights from her SUV carrying party flags of the RJD, Congress, and CPI. Four women party workers and police guards escort her. She’s on her way to the Kasba area, about 12 km from Purnea town. She doesn’t seem to be tired from the previous day’s campaign.

Bharti is up against heavyweight Independent candidate Rajesh Ranjan, alias Pappu Yadav, and NDA candidate who is also sitting MP, Santosh Kumar Kushwaha.

Journalists in Kosi region tell many stories of Mandal’s interests (dogs and alcohol) and atrocities (of setting dogs on people) and it is difficult to sift the truth from urban legend. However, the vernacular media has featured pictures of Bharti beaten black and blue, allegedly by him.

He was arrested in February 2024 along with his younger son allegedly for travelling with illegal weapons. “They were arrested at Mokama and later sent to Barh jail when we were on way to Patna to participate in the trust vote. We were a bit late as my husband had a liver problem,” says Bharti, days after, she joined the RJD.

Back in her main party campaign office located at the local Congress party office in Subhas Nagar of Purnea town, Bharti responds to allegations that her husband heads the Faizan gang that operates in the area. “My husband has not been a gang-lord or a criminal,” she says.

“He has fought against suppression and oppression of the weaker sections of society in rural areas of Purnea,” she asserts.

She’s wearing a bandana in green, the RJD colour. “I don’t fear anyone as we’ve lost four members of our family in the war between weaker and upper caste forces of my area. Over 100 people of my area in Purnea have lost their lives,” she adds. In August 2018, their older son was found murdered in Patna.

Bharti’s cavalcade passes Mohd. Rizwan, a marginal farmer from Kasba. “There were over a dozen SUVs, and she didn’t step out to speak to us,” he says.

“Who will dare to go to meet her?” he jokes with the group around him. Together, they laugh.

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