A huge marble mansion sticks out amid a sea of poverty in Bihar’s Bindusar Bujurg village that falls in the Siwan district, once a bastion of jailed criminal-turned-politician Mohammad Shahabuddin.
Lounging in the front courtyard of the sprawling estate, with 36 chandeliered rooms, 25 bathrooms, 135 doors as well as a plantation of well-laid out shady trees, owner Mohammed Habibullah’s son discusses the assembly election campaign.
“The decision of the Grand Alliance (GA) to not field Muslim candidates and RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s move of turning this into a ‘backwards versus forward’ campaign are strategic,” says Mohammed Shahid, who runs a flourishing glass and aluminium company in Dubai.
“In past elections, the BJP-led NDA reaped huge electoral dividends (winning six of the eight assembly seats in the 2010 assembly polls and both the Lok Sabha constituencies last year) on account of polarisation of votes. But the scenario is different this time.”
Habibullah was the first resident of Bindusar Bujurg to move to the Gulf. Since then, many from the village and nearby hamlets like Chakia, Chandpalli and Bhada have followed his lead.
Now, each home has a relative working in the Arab nations.
Annual remittances in the district are estimated at Rs 4,800 crore, witnessing an incremental increase in the past few years. Money transfer shops have mushroomed, while several homes have a fleet of cars and a range of firearms.
“Political narratives that focus excessively on concerns of ‘Bihari migrants’ are misplaced and display a feudal mindset,” says Srikant, director of the Patna-based Babu Jagjivan Ram Shodh Sansthan.
“Migration is good, as it helps the poor and rich alike. Migrants only want better facilities such as ATMs in villages to ensure smooth transfer of money.”
Studies show the backward eastern state has steadily grown in importance as a destination for remittances with thousands moving to the Gulf countries driven by the demand for both skilled and unskilled labour.
In the 11 years since the incarceration of Shahabuddin, who represented the RJD for four terms in the Lok Sabha and is known as Siwan’s Robin Hood, much has changed in the area.
The dominance of the RJD’s green flags that one witnessed in past elections has been replaced by a riot of saffron, yellow and blue streamers of candidates from various parties.
“The younger generation of voters (18-25 age group) is completely free of the ‘terror of Shahabuddin’ and continues to wholeheartedly support Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” says a local journalist.
The Gulf rush has brought individual prosperity, but lifestyles and attitudes have not changed. Siwan, like most towns and cities in Bihar, does not have streetlights or piped water and crime rates are high.
Mohamed Hanif, who works as a driver in Bahrain, spoke for many of his community when he said, “Our concerns are about ploughing back overseas funds into businesses back home. In our view, a Grand Alliance government can facilitate this.”
The contest in Siwan – likely to impact the trend in nearby districts of Gopalganj and Saran – is essentially a battle of perceptions and political undercurrents.
“If the Grand Alliance wins, Shahabuddin will be released from jail and the terror of the past will return,” says Arurveda practitioner Pintuji Pathak.
Local resident Gautam Ram who sells spiced chickpeas on a cart has a different take.
“Vote debe ka okra jey dil mein basal ba. Abke baari teer chaap. Nitish ji bahut kaam kele ba (Will vote for the one who has come to occupy our hearts. We will press the arrow [JD-U] symbol this time as chief minister Nitish Kumar has done commendable work).”