Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general-secretary Rajiv Pratap Rudy has come up with a detailed caste census of every block in his constituency, Saran, to the booth level. He knows the number of Rajputs, Yadavs, Mahadalits, extremely backward castes (Mallas, Lohars and Kumhars) and Muslim voters he can tap into from any of the 1,367 polling booths in his constituency (formerly the Chaapra seat), the bastion of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad.
“I have no option but to do this exercise. From my 25-year political experience here, I know voting takes place strictly on caste lines. Unlike other constituencies, this is a highly polarised society,” says Rudy, a Rajput from Amnaur and a trained commercial pilot.
He has contested four parliamentary elections from here, winning twice (1996 and 1999). Rudy says the fact that Prasad was railway minister earlier had skewed the poll pitch against him in 2004 and 2009.
This time, Rudy is pitted against Rabri Devi, Prasad’s wife. But Rudy has no illusions about who his real adversary is. “His wife is insignificant; this is a battle against Lalu Prasad.”
He is leaving nothing to chance, donning the role of an election manager. With a rigorous, meticulously planned schedule, he starts his day at 10 am, meeting the public and party workers, before leaving to campaign in the predominantly rural areas of Saran in north Bihar at 1 pm, returning to Chaapra only after midnight. His voluminous statistics show 25,000-30,000 votes, primarily from the non-Rajput and non-Yadav electorate, are crucial here. And, it is this segment Rudy is targeting.
In a setback to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Rudy, it appears, has managed to wean away certain segments of Mahadalits and extremely backward classes, something unimaginable in 2009. After interacting with a group of Mahadalits, he holds another meeting with select members of the Muslim community, including a maulana interested in extending support to Rudy.
Rudy’s message to them is unambiguous. “Don’t connect your fate to national events; confine yourself to Chaapra and your local needs.” He tells them for the past 10 years, they have been “misled” by misconceptions about Gujarat (read Godhra) by those who, after being elected, did nothing for them. He cites the developmental works he has carried out — the hand pumps he set up, the electrification of rural hamlets in villages, etc. “You don’t need to publicly show your support for me; otherwise, you will be pressurised by others. Just vote for me on election day.”
Rudy refuses to comment on his chances. He admits he is trying to get the BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, to hold a rally here. This could help sway a number of Yadav votes away from the RJD.
However, the civil aviation minister during the National Democratic Alliance government is perceived as a somewhat high-flying politician, with little contact with the masses, a charge Rudy dismisses vehemently. “Just because I don’t carry a gamchha (traditional cotton cloth) and sit in central hall (of Parliament) in Delhi like Lalu does, doesn’t mean I have no connect with the masses…This is a lie spread by my opponents because they can’t find anything against me — crime record, corruption and extortion.”
His opponent, Rabri Devi, is dismissive of him. At her house in Patna, Rabri Devi, yet to start her campaign in earnest, terms Rudy a “designer label politician”. On her part, she appeals to the rural Yadav population in the constituency with her down-to-earth image.
Rabri Devi says Prasad’s conviction has added a “sympathy factor” to her electoral chances. “Chaapra ke log marmahat hai aur iska prabhav padega (The people in Chaapra are heartbroken and this will influence the polls).”
Rudy appears to be acutely conscious of the tough battle on the cards. “After all, this (Chaapra) has been the Amethi and Rae Bareli of Lalu Prasad,” he says.
While Rudy and Prasad have been at the helm in Chaapra, the living conditions in this “high-profile constituency” are appalling. In the upmarket Prabhunath Nagar here, the overflowing garbage points to the lack of a drainage system. Nonetheless, Manoj Kumar Singh, a Rajput whose business is affected by the overflowing sewers around his two shops, says, “It’s a compulsion we have to vote for the BJP; we have to make Modiji prime minister.”
As Laloo Yadav is clearly focused on winning back the seat (Saran seat has been lying vacant since his conviction) albeit through a proxy candidate (his wife), Rudy is working round the clock to ensure a poll reversal this time in his favour.