When the by-polls were announced for the Mokama constituency of Bihar, it was believed to be a one-sided contest in favour of the Mahagathbandhan.
This is because Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Anant Singh has won the Mokama assembly seat four times consecutively since 2005.
However, he was disqualified from the assembly following his conviction in an arms recovery case and now his wife Neelam Devi is contesting the elections on an RJD ticket.
Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) candidate is Sonam Devi. She is the wife of Lalan Singh who challenged Anant twice in 2005 and 2015. While Sonam Devi herself contested against Anant Singh in 2010.
Given the past record, RJD appears to be on a stronger foot. However, as the election campaign is progressing, signs are appearing for a neck and neck contest.
The bahubali effect
Anant Singh and Lalan Singh both are considered to be a bahubali (strongman) and have their own influence. While Anant is considered to be more influential than Lalan, the entry of a third bahubali has made the contest interesting.
Last week, Lok Janshakti Party's (LJP) bahubali leader Surajbhan Singh and his wife Veena Devi campaigned for BJP candidate Sonam Devi.
Surajbhan had independently defeated Anant's elder brother Dilip Kumar Singh, who fought on an RJD ticket, on the Mokama seat in the 2000 assembly elections.
Surajbhan was then elected to the Lok Sabha from Balia constituency of Bihar in 2004. His wife Veena Devi calls herself "Mokama ki bahu" (Mokama's daughter in-law).
She was elected as an MP from Munger on an LJP ticket in 2014. Mokama is one of the assembly segments of the Munger Lok Sabha constituency.
Their campaigning is attracting votes towards BJP because Surajbhan is believed to have a ground connect with the people of Mokama. He has helped many and is believed to have not disturbed locals with his criminal acts.
Anant has his own loyalists for the same reasons. This makes his vote bank stable. Thus, the contest is getting closer.
The caste equations
While Bhumihars form 6 per cent of the state population, they are quite influential on the Mokama seat. Both the major contenders hail from the Bhumihar community.
The community is generally believed to vote for the BJP en-masse. Also, the present government is perceived to be "anti-forward", which may push the 'upper caste' votes to the BJP.
However, Anant himself has a considerable influence on the Bhumihar votes and the BJP has never contested against him. How the Bhumihar votes get divided, will be an interesting thing to watch.
Meanwhile, Lalan is reportedly reaching out to Dalits, Kurmis and Dhanuks. Nitish Kumar owes his success to "social engineering" with these castes, and hence, Lalan might be attempting to destabilise this vote bank.
Maybe this is why Nitish was expected to campaign in Mokama to consolidate the 'lower-caste' votes for the Mahagathbandhan. However, citing his injury in a boat accident, he didn't reach there.
A few locals told Swarajya that Nitish Kumar's visit to Mokama could prove counter-productive for the Mahagathbandhan because Kumar is believed to be anti-Bhumihar.
The BJP and JD(U) coalition has been quite successful in attracting 'lower-caste' votes, but after the split, the equations will change.
A local, Jaya Ranjan told Swarajya that the last-mile delivery of the welfare schemes by the Modi government has consolidated votes for the BJP.
Quoting from the locals, including her house-help, she says, "Je ghar delthin, votwa unke debai" (those who gave me a house, I will vote for them). Along with PM Awas Yojana, other welfare schemes also have a similar impact.
On the other hand, locals believe that Nitish is responsible for the slow development of Mokama. During his reign, many industries like cotton mills and Bharat Wagon factory were closed down.
This led to unemployment and triggered the migration of the youth. Thus, the youths are likely to vote for the BJP.
Some locals say that Anant's supporters are vocal and this is fuelling the hype around his wife's "confirmed victory", while BJP's supporters are silent as they fear Anant's hooliganism.
On the day of voting, these "silent voters" can turn out to be game-changers.
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