Kishanganj Bypoll: How the Congress Lost Its Deposit in a Former Bihar Bastion

Congress leaders from the Azad family have represented the area nine times since 1967.

Kishanganj (Bihar): Tejashwi Yadav, Bihar’s leader of opposition, was to address two consecutive rallies for Congress candidate Sayeeda Banu on October 17, just two days before the official end of campaigning for the Kishanganj assembly by-election. The former deputy chief minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal’s face was the last hope for the septuagenarian mother of UPA’s lone Lok Sabha MP from Bihar, Mohammad Jawaid Azad.

The crowd waited for Tejashwi, but the helicopter never landed. And Tejaswi’s absence wasn’t the only thing that went wrong for the Congress at the rally. Party candidate Sayeeda Banu appeared on stage for the first time, 17 days after her nomination, and broke her silence.

Also read: BJP’s Biggest Challengers Right Now Are the Dominant Agrarian Castes

Addressing the audience in the Surjapuri dialect for around two minutes, she spoke with gratified motherly pride about her son being elected to Lok Sabha. Then, she went on to say, “Kishanganj has always supported Congress, Kishanganj will never forget Congress. After me, my son, grandson-granddaughter and other people will come, but Congress will never lose Kishanganj.”

These words were spoken – completely ignoring accusations of dynastic politics – out of an overconfidence developed over decades. Her late husband, Hussain Azad, was the elected MLA from Kishanganj five times between 1967 and 1995. Her son followed in his footsteps, and he was sent to the Bihar assembly for four times before becoming an MP in 2019.

AIMIM’s victory rally: candidate Qamrul Huda, Bihar unit president Akhtarul Iman atop a vehicle. Photo: Tanzil Asif

The Azad family’s village, Chhattargachh aka Azad Nagar, comes under Pothia block, which was part of the Thakurganj assembly segment before a new constituency, Kishanganj, was carved out ahead of 2010 Bihar elections. Hence, Jawaid shifted his political base from the Thakurganj to Kishanganj assembly segment. The Azad family has represented the area nine times since 1967; word is she knows the region like the back of her hand.

Neither Jawaid nor his party took the allegations of clichéd dynastic politics seriously, since he is also a product of the same. He would retort, “BJP candidate Sweety Singh is the wife of former MLA Sikander Singh, AIMIM is a party being run by the Owaisi brothers – how are we the only dynast here?” When his mother was called old, he refuted this by saying she is Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s contemporary and that Kishanganj’s two former MPs – Maulana Asrarul Haque Qasmi and Mohammad Taslimuddin – were septuagenarians as well.

Mother-son duo Sayeeda Banu and Kishanganj MP Jawaid Azad avoiding the media after her nomination. Photo: Tanzil Asif

But his party workers were not convinced. An old-time party worker, Imran, contested as an independent candidate; Jawaid’s mentor Jahangir stayed away from the campaign. “We are campaigning for the AIMIM candidate Qamrul Huda, discreetly we are telling people – Congress se ber nahin, budhiya teri khair nahi (Don’t oppose Congress, don’t spare the elderly),” two days before polling, a party worker told me on the condition of anonymity. He added, “She is entering politics when she should be praying and going on pilgrimage. When will we get a chance?”

Also read: In Bijepur By-Poll, a Whiff of Odisha’s (and Naveen Patnaik’s) Political Future

Sayeeda Banu was pitted against two outspoken candidates of the BJP and AIMIM, and remaining silent was not a wise choice for her. While her son addressed rallies on her behalf, she focused on meeting people. And when she started speaking, finally, it was too late. “That’s why we are here, ask us whatever you wish to,” said Congress Rajya Sabha MP Akhilesh Prasad Singh when asked about the candidate’s silence.

It would be unjustified to give all the credit to Congress’s wrong decisions; Asaduddin Owaisi’s party didn’t leave any stone unturned to open its account in Bihar. AIMIM got 16,000 votes in its first election in 2015; four years later in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party’s candidate Akhtarul Iman got more than 40,000 votes in the Kishanganj assembly segment.

AIMIM candidate Qamrul Huda talking to the media after his nomination. Photo: Tanzil Asif

While AIMIM’s enthusiastic party workers were making every dent possible in Congress’s bastion, Jawaid kept repeating the mundane narrative of calling them a BJP agent, a spoiler. “The spoiler demolished Congress’s fortress,” smiled an AIMIM worker at the party’s victory rally. “Now that we have won by defeating the BJP, who is the spoiler and who the agent?”

AIMIM’s Qamrul Huda got 41.46% votes and defeated BJP by a margin of 10,204 votes in the Kishanganj assembly by-election. Congress lost its deposit, with just 14.88% votes, a record low. Owaisi’s party took the lead in two other assembly segments – Kochadhaman and Bahadurganj – in the Lok Sabha elections, and stood second in Amour.

The party has already announced its decision to contest all 243 seats in Bihar in the upcoming assembly elections. “We don’t want to be chief minister, deputy chief minister or prime minister, all we want is a budget of Rs 3,500 crore for minorities in Bihar, special status for the Seemanchal region and a full-fledged campus for Aligarh Muslim University’s Kishanganj centre,” said the party’s Bihar unit youth president, Aadil Hasan Azad.

Tanzil Asif is a Bihar-based journalist-cum-entrepreneur and the founder of a hyper-local news organisation, Main Media. He tweets at @tnzl_.