A clash of titans is on the cards in Patna Sahib where Shatrughan Sinha is seeking to retain the seat for a third consecutive term, this time on a Congress ticket, surmounting a formidable challenge posed by Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Altogether 18 candidates are in the fray for the constituency, which covers the entire Patna city and a part of the outskirts, though the contest is being viewed as essentially a straight one between the actor-turned-politician and Prasad.
Named after a centuries-old Sikh shrine located on the banks of the Ganga where Guru Gobind Singh was born and spent his early childhood, Patna Sahib Lok Sabha seat came into being in the delimitation of 2008 and Mr Sinha won it in the 2009 and retained the seat five years later.
Often called 'Bihari Babu' by virtue of his professed attachment to his home state, the flamboyant actor of yesteryears sounds confident of making a hat-trick as he points out "I have won the seat in the past two elections with margins that were the highest for Bihar. This was because of the immense love people have for me. Moreover, I am not a usual party-hopper. The circumstances under which I had to quit the BJP are known to all."
Associated with the BJP since the early 1990s when it was not much of a force to reckon with, Mr Sinha fell out with the BJP leadership after the ascension of Narendra Modi and the anointment of his confidant Amit Shah as the party's national president.
The outspoken former Bollywood star made his discomfiture with the party leadership public on many an occasion while he was still with the BJP which he had been describing, for quite some time, as a "one man army and two man show".
The announcement of Ravi Shankar Prasad as the BJP candidate from his seat proved to be the last straw for Mr Sinha, who switched over to the Congress, which fielded him from his sitting seat.
The BJP is, however, dismissive of his prospects and asserts that Mr Sinha's stellar victories were on account of his association with the party.
Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, arguably the tallest BJP leader from the state, who has never been on good terms with Mr Sinha, points out, "Five out of the six assembly segments falling under Patna Sahib are held by the BJP. This was despite the fact our party faced an uphill task in the assembly polls wherein Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad had joined hands." "Nitish is now back with us and so is Ram Vilas Paswan who was not in 2009. So our prospects are stronger than ever. Combine that with the unquestionable popularity of Narendra Modi and the fact that the Congress is a spent force in Bihar. Shatrughan Sinha should consider himself lucky if he finds even a polling agent," PM Modi says.
The Congress, meanwhile, is canvassing in favour of the new entrant with uncharacteristic vigour and is being assisted in the same by its formidable ally, the RJD, which had won one of the six assembly segments here and lost another with a thin margin to the BJP. Parties like the Aam Aadmi Party, the CPI and the CPI(M), not of much electoral consequence, have also extended their support in the interest of "secularism and defeating the BJP" and their volunteers are doing their bit to add spice to the campaign of the actor who is considered a staid electioneer despite his gift of the gab.
One crucial factor, which worries the BJP and Sinha too is known to be secretly banking upon, is the disgruntlement that Prasad's candidature has caused to Rajya Sabha member Ravindra Kishore Sinha, who wanted the seat for himself or his son Rituraj.
Founder of security solutions behemoth SIS, Ravindra Kishore Sinha is said to be quite popular among members of the Kayastha caste, numerically small overall but in sizeable numbers in the state capital, whom he is known to help in times of distress, financially and otherwise.
The Akhil Bharatiya Kayastha Mahasabha - which claims to have some influence among the largely urbane and highly fractured community - had even come out with a statement that it would not support the BJP candidate unless it happened to be RK Sinha.
R K Sinha last month had a closed door, hour-long meeting here with Bhaiyaji Joshi - the number 2 in Sangh Parivar - which was seen as a damage control exercise by the saffron conglomerate.
Trying to fish in troubled waters, Shatrughan Sinha had remarked a few days later, "I have personal regard for RK Sinha, who is my senior. The party did not do justice to him by denying him the party ticket. Had he been fielded, it would have forced me to have second thoughts about taking him on."
When R K Sinha was recently approached for his reaction on "Shotgun" (another epithet associated with the actor) sounding confident of his victory, he said, "I can assure you I will come to Patna to cast my vote for Ravi Shankar Prasad on polling day" but added cryptically "Shatrughan Sinha is a senior and experienced leader. If he says he can win, he must be having reasons to do so."
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