Patna: Shatrughan Sinha finally completed his expected move to the Congress Saturday, and was promptly announced as the candidate from Patna Sahib constituency in Bihar.
To have “Bihari Babu” Sinha, 72, in its ranks will resolve a struggle that has dogged the Congress for years: Whom to field against the Bollywood star, who still has an enviable grip on the hearts of Bihar voters.
In 2009, the party fielded well-known TV star Shekhar Suman, a Kayastha and native of Bihar like Sinha, but he lost his deposit, paving the way for the latter’s Lok Sabha debut. In 2014, the Congress fielded popular Bhojpuri filmstar Kunal Singh, a Yadav, but he lost too, by over one lakh votes.
However, the BJP is now at pains to emphasise that the actor’s victory in Patna Sahib had nothing to do with his popularity.
“Shatrughan Sinha did not win because he was a Bollywood star, he won as a BJP candidate,” Bihar Road Construction Minister Nand Kishore Yadav, Sinha’s old friend, told ThePrint. “In Patna Sahib, even an ordinary party worker will win.”
A BJP stronghold
The constituency of Patna Sahib, believed to be the birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, came into existence with the 2008 delimitation exercise. It was earlier a part of the larger Patna seat.
Ram Kripal Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) won Patna thrice — in the 1993 bypoll, 1996 and 2004 — because it then consisted of semi-rural areas like Danapur and Phulwari sharif, which has a strong Yadav and Muslim presence. In 1999, the seat was won by C.P. Thakur of the BJP.
But Patna Sahib is a more urbanised seat, and has been a BJP citadel since 2009. In the 2015 assembly polls, despite the fact that the BJP’s challenge against the Lalu-Nitish mahagathbandhan crumbled, the party won five of the seat’s six assembly segments.
“I have a friendly advice for Shatrughan Sinha,” said Bihar Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi. “He should not belittle himself in this advanced age by standing as a Congress candidate. He will find it difficult to even get polling agents for every booth. He has been an icon from Bihar.”
Not all agree. “Shatrghan Sinha has been with the BJP since it had just two seats in the Lok Sabha,” said Pradeep Gupta, a close associate of Sinha.
“He has been an MP in the Rajya Sabha twice and is a two-time Lok Sabha MP. He has done a lot for Patna and has a following of his own inside the BJP also,” Gupta added. “The BJP should not be under the illusion that we will not find workers. With the support of the Grand Alliance, he should sail through comfortably.”
Sinha contested his maiden Lok Sabha election in 1992, facing off against fellow Bollywood superstar Rajesh Khanna, who represented the Congress, in New Delhi. It was a bypoll, conducted after BJP veteran L.K. Advani junked New Delhi for Gandhinagar, the other seat he won in the general election the previous year. Sinha lost.
Two stints in the Rajya Sabha as a Bihar representative followed before he tried his luck at the Lok Sabha again in 2009.
The Modi-Shah factor
Sinha’s position in the BJP was secure when Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were at the helm. However, the moment Narendra Modi and Amit Shah began calling the shots, he was sidelined, say sources.
According to BJP insiders, in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the party “hinted” that Sinha leave Patna Sahib and contest from Delhi to allow Ravi Shankar Prasad, also a Kayastha, to contest from the seat.
The former Bollywood star dug in his heels, and the BJP caved. However, ever since, Sinha has never hidden his contempt for the present BJP brass. He criticised demonetisation, and even praised RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Janata Dal (United) president Nitish Kumar when they joined hands to defeat the BJP in 2015.
“He made it clear that he was no longer interested in continuing in the BJP,” said a BJP leader.
The chill exists on both sides. Despite being the local MP, Sinha has not been invited to local functions of PM Modi.
As he decided to switch sides, Sinha was given a choice by the Grand Alliance of the Congress and the RJD to pick either of their tickets.
He picked the Congress because of the strong resistance shown by the RJD against the Modi government’s general-category quota, a factor that may have worked against him in a constituency dominated by upper castes.
“It was felt that a Congress ticket will be more suitable because the party had supported quota,” said a Sinha aide.
This election will pit Sinha against BJP’s Prasad, who had a rough arrival in the state Tuesday amid a clash at the Patna airport between his supporters and those of fellow BJP Rajya Sabha member R.K. Sinha.
Former Union home secretary R.K. Sinha was a close contender for the Patna Sahib seat and political observers feel that “disgruntled BJP elements” may work to his advantage.
This is the maiden electoral battle for Prasad, who has been in the Rajya Sabha since 2000.
Even as the BJP plays down his influence as a Lok Sabha candidate, it concedes the fact that Sinha’s exit has lost them a star campaigner.
“Bihari babu used to draw huge crowds wherever he went,” said a senior BJP leader. “We have taken the help of Hema Malini as a star campaigner. But the fact remains that he is the biggest star Bihar has given to Bollywood. Despite his faded stardom, he remains an icon in Bihar.”
For the Grand Alliance, Sinha’s induction couldn’t have come at a better time.
“He may contest from a Congress ticket but now he belongs to the Grand Alliance,” said former Bihar deputy chief minister and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav.
The RJD’s campaigns have always been driven by a star campaigner. In the absence of Lalu, who is in jail, the mantle had fallen on Tejashwi, but there is hardly any other leader in the Grand Alliance who can draw crowds.
“Now we will have Shatrughan Sinha,” said a RJD leader.
Even so, Nand Kishore Yadav of the BJP said the Modi factor will deliver a win for the party anyway.
“The focus of the polls is who will become the next PM, and it will not matter how much Shatrughan Sinha campaigns for the Grand Alliance,” he added.
Despite Sinha’s popularity, the voters of Patna Sahib have one complaint against him: That he was inaccessible and, as a Mumbai resident, rarely visited Patna, expect for a few functions.
“Citizens of Patna were in the habit of accessible MPs like Ram Kripal Yadav, who was available at Gandhi Maidan every morning doing his exercise,” said Manmohan Krishna, a Patna resident.
“Even Dr C.P. Thakur used to meet residents with petitions while he sat with a stethoscope to see his patients,” the resident added.
“Shatrughan Sinha was not available for residents of Patna. Luckily for him, Prasad, despite being from Patna, has also been inaccessible to people. One cannot expect to walk to his house in Boring Road and meet him.