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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 April, 2004, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Jail no bar for Bihar candidates

By Jyotsna Singh
BBC correspondent in Bihar

Brahmeshwar Singh in Ara jail in Bihar
Candidate Brahmeshwar Singh says he is a victim of a corrupt state
In India's most notoriously lawless state, Bihar, running for office and running to keep out of the way of the police are equally valuable skills for aspiring politicians.

Take Mohammad Shahabuddin, an MP of the state's ruling Rastriya Janata Dal party, an ally of the Congress Party.

He is running his election campaign from a hospital-turned-prison in the dusty town of Siwan, the constituency he is defending.

Mr Shahabuddin has spent eight months in the makeshift prison awaiting trial.

Bihar police arrested him in connection with the kidnapping of a local rival party activist who is believed to have been killed.

Mr Shahabuddin is facing charges in more than 30 other cases of murder, bank robbery and kidnapping.

Feared and revered

Indian law does not allow those awaiting trial to vote but there is no bar on people fighting elections from jail if not yet convicted.

India's Election Commission has ordered all candidates to clearly state in an affidavit the number of cases pending against them.

But in a state like Bihar, that may have little meaning.

Bihar MP Mohammad Shahabuddin
Mohammad Shahabuddin sets "rules" from his place of detention

In his constituency Mr Shahabuddin is both feared and revered.

His critics accuse him of abusing the state machinery for his own ends.

Hundreds of visitors come every day to seek an audience with Mr Shahabuddin.

Among them is a student who has walked miles to get Mr Shahabuddin's view on his headmaster's decision to bar him from taking his final exams.

"I want to ask Saheb (Sir) what he thinks of my case."

Others sitting in the crowd nod in unison. As far as they are concerned, it is Mr Shahabuddin who runs Siwan.

When he sets rules, they are followed.

For example, doctors cannot charge patients more than a 50 rupee ($1.15) fee.

They should also provide consultations free of charge on national holidays.

Many doctors prefer to make money as private practitioners, so Mr Shahabuddin has now "instructed" them to turn up on time to perform their duties in government-run hospitals.

Mr Shahabuddin says his party workers are unhappy that he is not able to campaign himself, but is sure that that will not affect the outcome of polling.

"I will win because I have ensured development and law and order in my region," he says.

He dismisses concerns about his alleged criminal background.

"I am not a criminal just because there are so many cases against me."

Basic facilities

Many of Mr Shahabuddin's constituents believe his two rival candidates, from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist, pose no challenge to him.

Asha Das
In hospitals, doctors never turned up on time and charged exorbitant fees. But now everything works
Asha Das, Bihar voter

There is almost no sign of the opposition campaigning in the constituency.

One villager, pleading that his identity should not be disclosed, said: "Do you want to get us hanged by telling you what we feel about elections here and who we would like to vote for?"

However, others say they are impressed by Mr Shahabuddin's ability to ensure basic facilities.

"We had only potholes in the name of a road here," says 70-year-old doctor's wife Asha Das.

"Colleges had closed because there was no money to run them. In hospitals, doctors never turned up on time and charged exorbitant fees. But now everything works."

Caste army

Mohammad Shahabuddin is far from being the only politician contesting power in Bihar from behind bars.

Several are facing charges in cases including murder and kidnapping.

Campaigners for Mohammad Shahabuddin in Siwan
There is little campaigning in Siwan except for Shahabuddin

Ironically, law and order is a key selling point for most of these candidates, along with development issues.

Brahmeshwar Singh has been in jail for two years facing charges involving the killing of lower caste Hindus.

He is accused of heading an upper caste private army in Bihar and prior to his capture had a reward of 500,000 rupees on his head.

He denies any wrongdoing and says he is a victim of the "criminal mentality of a corrupt state government".

"I do not condone violence. I only tried to unite the people against extremist forces who were indulging in violence," he told BBC News Online from his cell in the Ara central jail in Bihar.

"I am contesting [the election as an independent] to bring true justice to people. People know I can ensure peace."

Analysts say the linkage of politics and crime in Bihar has much to do with the near total collapse of the state machinery.

Shaibal Gupta, of the Asian Development Research Institute, says Bihar is $5b in debt and cannot fund basic services.

Lawless elements then step in to control law and order, he says.

Mr Gupta says Bihar needs urgent action and a sense of indigenous identity.

"Unless that happens, Bihar is not going to see any critical change. Until you look towards the problem at the state level, identify yourself with the state rather than to your caste, I don't think Bihar has any future."

In Patna, Bihar's state capital, a doctor who was kidnapped recently sums up the desperation of the people.

He is too scared to discuss the abduction, but says: "All we want here is to live in peace. Is it too much to ask?"

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