TAMIL NADU

Five for Fernandes?

K. Balchand

MUZAFFARPUR

This politically conscious constituency has today come to attain the dubious distinction of being a defectors' paradise. Ever since 1977, the winning candidates have generally been the ones who have switched parties.

The Defence Minister and the Janata Dal (United) president, George Fernandes, has won the seat on four occasions, contesting from three different parties. In 1977, he won on the Bharatiya Lok Dal ticket, in 1980 it was the Janata Party (S) and in 1989 and 1991 he rode to victory on the Janata Dal bandwagon. He is contesting for the fifth time now from Muzaffarpur.

Mr. Fernandes has returned to the constituency after a gap of over eight years; in the meantime he had shifted to Nalanda, from where he won thrice. He had also abandoned the constituency earlier, in 1984 during the Congress wave, when he had unsuccessfully contested from Karnataka. Is it a case of the `prodigal son' coming back?

Mr. Fernandes takes pains to dispel the impression. He says he has clarified his decision to shift from Muzaffarpur to Nalanda. "I've explained the reason," he says underlining that he had not "left" them.

The JD (U) chief's speeches dwell on the "dark days" when he had contested the elections here for the first time in 1977 after the Emergency. At a meeting at Paknaha Bazaar, where a motley crowd has gathered, he stresses each and every detail of his first experience with the constituency in a bid to strike a rapport once again with the voters. More so, because this time this old warhorse is swimming against the socialist current, riding on the Bharatiya Janata Party bandwagon.

He denies that he had been forced out of Nalanda and maintains that his relations with the Railway Minister, Nitish Kumar, are fine. But his supporters in the village think otherwise, blaming Mr. Kumar for Mr. Fernandes' plight. Rajeshwar Prasad Singh of Bhikanpura feels that Mr. Kumar had sabotaged Mr. Fernandes' candidacy from Nalanda.

Unlike on previous occasions, Mr. Fernandes this time is banking on a different vote bank altogether, one that perhaps explains his refrain that President's rule would be imposed on Bihar if the National Democratic Alliance was returned to power at the Centre.

Mr. Fernandes is confident that the Muslims will vote for him. But that does not seem plausible. Be it Md. Shabbir, Md. Amin or Md. Kalam, all are firm that they would vote for the RJD nominee, Bhagwan Lal Sahni.

The impression that the minorities were upset with the RJD for fielding a man who was with the RSS and had been involved in the demolition of the Babri Masjid has slowly reversed in favour of the RJD's secular commitment.

"We are voting for the RJD and not Mr. Sahni. We had also blindly voted for Mr. Fernandes in 1977 considering him a messiah of the poor, but he has failed us," was the general refrain. The Muslims were also upset with the Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani's rath yatra, charging that it was provocative.

Mr. Sahni has certainly come into the reckoning now, unlike in the initial stages when it appeared that Mr. Fernandes was headed for an easy victory. Darbeshwar Thakur, a barber by caste, said that he would vote for the RJD. "But the candidate is not up to the mark and hence Mr. Fernandes is likely to win," he says.

The other advantage of Mr. Fernandes is, of course, his stature. "He will win because he is a national leader, while his rival does not match up to him," says Binay Kumar.

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