Missionaries of might have virtually taken over the land of Gautama Buddha, the apostle of peace.
Shrawasti, formerly Savatthi, is where the Buddha spent the greater part of his monastic life. Today, it is known for gang lords who flaunt their wealth, weapons and 'warriors'.
Two such dons turned politicians – Samajwadi Party's Atiq Ahmad and Peace Party's Rizwan Zaheer alias Rijju Bhaiya – are battling it out for the Shrawasti Lok Sabha seat. Each is targeting the 30% Muslim votes in the constituency, which could work to the advantage of BJP candidate Daddan Mishra or incumbent Congress MP Vinay Pandey despite the anti-incumbency factor.
Ahmad and Zaheer, both 51, have a long dossier of criminal cases including those of murder and gang wars.
A two-time MP and three-time MLA, Zaheer has a fleet of luxury cars and a penchant for designer suits, costly perfumes and ferocious dogs. Said to have stakes in real estate business in Mumbai and Delhi, he also possesses a 30-bore rifle, a 32-bore pistol and a 12-bore gun.
Zaheer is said to have been engaged in territorial wars with the Brijesh Singh and Brajbhushan Saran Singh gangs.
Unlike Zaheer, Ahmad is rustic and low on education. But his reputation is more fearsome; he has 40 criminal cases pending against him, some of them pertaining to murder, kidnapping, rioting and extortion.
Ahmad's party office in Balrampur, 170 km northeast of Lucknow, is opposite the official residence of the senior superintendent of police. And UP Tourism's hotel – with bar – functions as a temporary residence for him and his associates.
Zaheer appears to have an edge despite being a 'chhota' don compared to Ahmad. He is a local muscleman unlike Ahmad, who the SP 'imported' from Allahabad. "Besides, he has earned the goodwill of Muslims as well as Hindus in the Tulsipur assembly segment where he comes from," said Balrampur resident LB Singh.
On the other hand, the SP's cadre base gives Ahmad, a former MP and MLA, the strength. The SP had won all five of Shrawasti's assembly segments — Bhinga, Shrawasti, Tulsipur, Gainsari and Balrampur — in the 2012 elections.
Both Ahmad and Zaheer were associated with SP and Bahujan Samaj Party in the past. As BSP candidate in 2009, the latter had finished behind Congress' Pandey. BSP has fielded former minister Lalji Verma this time.
But things have changed since 2012. Voters are disillusioned with SP after just two years in power. Pandey too faces their wrath for ignoring the constituency. BJP's Mishra, who was minister in the last BSP government, is seen as the weakest candidate but hopes to ride the Narendra Modi wave to victory.
Modi is expected to address a rally in Balrampur on Friday.