As evening sets in, dozens of vendors start unpacking vegetables of all shapes and colours near a busy traffic intersection in Bihar’s Nalanda district.
Within minutes the area is swarmed by sari-clad women, in a hurry to get home and cook dinner as the neighbouring villages sleep early.
A little distance away, about half a dozen shops are selling a very different range of products. But buyers are pouring in.
Sanjeev Kumar opened his store nearly two years ago, stocking mobile phones of popular brands like Samsung and HTC.
“I have even sold iPhones from this counter,” he says, catering to customers from 15 nearby villages. “Facebook and WhatsApp have made our business easier.”
But with the state headed to polls next month, this locality in recent days has turned into a popular “download destination”.
Youngsters without internet access queue up at these shops to transfer videos and cartoons of politicians onto their mobile phones, while songs and Bhojpuri films are also popular choices.
“Modi and Lalu Prasad videos are all the rage,” reveals Sanjeev, adding that he gets about a dozen requests for them every day.
Waiting outside one of the stores, called “download dukaans (shops)” by locals, 26-year-old Raghuvir Kumar shares a WhatsApp joke.
“Ram ne Ravan ko maara (R=R) Corruption marega Congress ko (C=C) Ab Narendra marega Nitish ko…! (N=N),” he reads the gag, sending his friends into fits of laughter.
The Rs 6,000 Micromax phone in his hands is his most expensive purchase ever, confesses Raghuvir. His father is a plumber who earns less than Rs 9,000 a month.
“I have liked the Facebook pages of most of the leaders but I don’t trust what they say,” explains the young man wearing a wrinkled shirt and faded trousers who’s preparing for a government recruitment exam. “Everybody is busy bragging about themselves. No one cares about the employment concerns of the youth.”
Bihar has registered tremendous growth in the telecom sector. The total number of telephone connections went up about 10% to more than 60 million in 2013-14. More than 82% of the people in rural Bihar have mobile handsets, a recent study revealed.
Such massive mobile phone penetration exists despite the fact that 43.85% of the population living in the backwoods of the eastern state is illiterate.
“With the internet fast reaching the hands of Bihar’s youth, they are now better informed and their aspirations have increased,” says political expert Prem Shankar Singh. “Though there are many who would still vote on caste lines, the number will go down.”
The growing number of internet users in villages has led to a mushrooming of shops in every neighbourhood where customers download videos and photographs as well as purchase the latest handset.
Around 40 kilometres from Nalanda is Techa Bigha, a village populated mostly by Yadavs, a backward community that constitutes less than 15% of the state’s population but wields considerable political clout.
Two paan shops here offer phone recharge coupons, video and song download options as well as mobile accessories.
“Seven out of ten young men here have mobile phones with internet and at least four of them use either social networking sites or WhatsApp,” says 28-year-old Kundan Kumar Yadav, a local resident.
Electricity came to Techa Bigha only in 2010. But in the next five years, cellphones found their way to most homes.
“We share several political jokes and know who is Feku and who is Pappu,” says Praveen Yadav, another resident of Techa Bigha. “Though my village has traditionally voted for the RJD, in the last Lok Sabha election I picked Modi. But I won’t repeat it this time as there are hardly any job openings for the youth. I am now 28 and unemployed.”