On a sweltering April morning, the carcade of former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar led by motorcycle outriders and a blaring autorickshaw zigzags the narrow lanes of villages in Chhaurahi block of Cheria-Bariyarpur in Begusarai. The golden wheat crops on one side and the sweet corn plants pitched cheek by jowl on the other flank shine in the sun as the caravan plods sluggishly.
Mr. Kumar is contesting from the Begusarai parliamentary seat as a CPI candidate against BJP leader and Union Minister Giriraj Singh.
The 32-year-old leader, an unassuming youth with a boyish face and of average height at 5'6'', is in the battlefield to challenge a heavyweight, the 67-year-old Giriraj Singh, 6'2'' tall and always sporting a red dot on his forehead and a hairy knot on the back of the head, and known for his speeches supporting “hard Hindutva”. From a distance it may appear to be a fight between David and Goliath but on the ground it’s a different story. Mr. Kumar apparently has queered the pitch for Mr. Singh with his intense campaign and popularity.
Standing in the middle of a shiny red car with an open sunroof, Mr. Kumar greets villagers with folded hands. Hundreds of men, women and children gather on both flanks of the lanes to welcome him.
He often wipes out the sweat beads dotting his face and forehead with a white cotton towel. At noon, his caravan stops at a Durga temple in Parora village. Standing in horizontal harmony, the villagers shower him with marigold garlands and offer water. The diagonally set loudspeaker fitted atop the lone autorickshaw blares “Kanhaiya Kumar zindabad ”. Mr. Kumar gets down from the car, heads towards the temple but takes a hasty U-turn as someone tells him something in his ear. He cheerfully returns to the villagers, greeting them with his folded hands and flashing a tired smile.
The next stop is a mosque in Dumri village. Septuagenarian Mohammed Illiyas comes out of the verandah of his house and shakes hands with Mr. Kumar. His grandsons request Mr. Kumar for a selfie and he obliges them. “This boy should win the election... we all need a neta like him in Parliament,” says Mr. Illiyas. His grandsons look happy with the selfies with the young leader. “ Haathi-ghoda palki,jai Kanhaiya lal ki (a village lore),” sings the younger one. The caravan passes through Mahto Tola, Ekamba and other villages without stopping.
Hundreds of motorcycle-borne youth wearing red bandanas, scarves, caps, turbans and T-shirts embossed with party symbol “corn and sickle” and Begusarai on them lead Mr. Kumar’s car followed by over a dozen SUVs. Comrade Jayant Kumar and Comrade Amit Kumar cover both gates of the car to protect Mr. Kumar. Comrade Suraj Kumar has been behind the wheel and comrade Saroj Kumar in the backseat ever since Mr. Kumar kicked off his campaign. “Every day we cover at least 100 km, stopping at 38 points, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s been hectic but exciting. Our own Kanhaiya is in the ring,” says Mr. Suraj Kumar. Mr. Saroj Kumar is busy answering incessant phone calls on Mr. Kanhaiya Kumar's mobile phone on his behalf.
At 4.30 p.m. the carcade stops at the residence of a late comrade, Radha Krishna Yadav, in Pranpura-Bariyara village for lunch. “It’s late but we have something to eat,” the candidate requests everyone.
Under a tent, the motorcyclists and other supporters sit cross-legged on the ground to have meal of daal-bhaat - subzi (rice, lentils and vegetables). A tired Mr. Kanhaiya Kumar washes his face and feet at a handpump. His faded purple shirt is dotted with several white sweat lines; his blue jeans scrunches up and the discoloured rubber slippers threaten to part ways. “ Aaj garmi bahut jyada hai (Today it’s really hot),” he says and readies to answer a few questions.
Your opponents say you’re a “ desh drohi (anti-national) ”? “Then why is the Election Commission not taking any action against me? These are really loose statements,” he says. Your contender Giriraj Singh is confident of winning. “Then why he took a week’s time to come to Begusarai? Why was he scared of coming here?” How do you find people’s response here? “They say neta nahi, beta chahiye (we need no leader, but our son),” says Mr. Kanhaiya Kumar, who comes from the district while Mr. Singh is from another district, Lakhisarai.
At Wazitpur village we bid adieu to Mr. Kanhaiya Kumar’s campaign trail and come out in the grubby town of Begusarai where the roads, lanes and by-lanes are covered with red flags, the CPI’s signature colour. With the sun setting in the sky, music of popular Bhojpuri songs recomposed with lyrics attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his populist policies reverberates in the distance. Amid the cacophony and colour, the air is also thick with cries: “Kanhaiya Kumar zindabad ”.