2015, Bihar 2020, Journalism, Patna, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar2020 from Bihar2015: The Artful Dodger called Mukesh Sahni

When I first met him, this young man had merely dipped a toe into electoral waters. It appears he liked what he sensed and had the resources to indulge his fancies. Here’s Sahni, “Son of Mallah”, who now heads Bihar’s VIP, and has extracted 11 assembly seats from the BJP. A throwback piece from the 2015 campaign.

This is the story of the negotiator of this election. He belongs to no political party, has zero political lineage and next to no grooming in rough and tumble. But he has bargained artfully with Bihar’s big adversaries – the NDA and the Mahagathbandhan – switched loyalties with aplomb and extracted more purchase and notice than might be expected of a 34-year-old Bollywood set decorator.

Mukesh Sahni, “Son of Mallah”

Meet Mukesh Sahni, also known as “Son of Mallah”, consummate “apolitical” politicker, a man pursued alike by Nitish Kumar and Amit Shah, a man who shuttled tantalisingly between both before agreeing to be seduced by the latter. “I am no politician,” he says, “All I had were votes, I went for the one who gave me and my community the better deal. Did I do any wrong?” Money? And how much? “None,” he counters, “Not a pie, I am not for sale, I am here to secure the best for my Mallah (boatmen) brothers. I have made money, and I am aware what happens once you’ve sold yourself.”

Speculation says otherwise but then, speculation is not an entity that can be reliably quoted.

Who might Mukesh Sahni be and why did he become so hotly wooed by Bihar’s political combatants?

He is a runaway Nishad boy from Supaul Bazar in rural Darbhanga. He escapes his home and trade as an 18-year old. “My father is a fisherman, he insisted I follow him. But I never liked to be seen as a fisherman, when I had to take the catch to the local bazar, I would place the bags before sunrise and vanish, I never saw myself selling fish, I never wanted to be seen selling fish.”

He wants to head to Delhi but when he arrives at Darbhanga railway station, there’s a train leaving for Mumbai. He boards it and begins a journey that is still unfolding. At the moment it has brought him to a five-star suite in Patna and put him within phonecall’s distance with the high and mighty. “Why I can claim I am not sold out and can’t be taken for granted is that in the BJP I talk directly to Amit Shah, nobody else. And he knows as well as anybody, I am not his for keeps.”

From fish to the big fish was a jagged, unmapped route. Mukesh first picks up a job Rs 900 a month job in a general store in Gokul Dham in Mumbai. He returns home three years later for a break but finds he has not entirely escaped native tentacles. His fishmonger father attempts to yoke him yet again. Mukesh runs away another time. He resumes his shop-front day job and begins to train himself as glass-cutter. One day an acquaintance introduces him to mid-level workers on the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas. “I always wanted to go see Film City, I dropped everything and began to seek entry to the Devdas sets, I was ready to do everything, anything.”

He sneaks into Film City through a friendly crack and doesn’t cease until he has put a solitaire diamond in his left ear-lobe and unfolded a home banner called “Mukesh Cine Art”. ” Achha paisa kamaya, bahut achha.” (I made good money, very good money.)

Such good money that when he returns home for Chhath festivities in the winter of 2013, he is willing to be “persuaded” by Nishad clansmen that he should “do something for the community”. Taken by peer adulation, Mukesh begins to plough Nishad pride.

There is no reliable data on this but Mukesh claims Nishads and allied sub-castes form 10 per cent of Bihar’s population. “We have 22 sub-castes, we go by 42 titles, we are big, people would have to take notice if we got together.” He holds one rally, then another, then another, calling upon Nishads to rally together and grab their share of power and influence. “Almost immediately, I got political notice. Parties and leaders began to pursue me.” Mukesh begins to play with them. Almost wantonly.

This is how. He herds Nishads behind the BJP in 2014 upon “consultations” but is upset that post-victory no senior BJP leader calls him to “even express gratitude”. Angry, he decides to “teach the BJP a lesson” and opens a line to Nitish Kumar. Planted in two boats, Mukesh continues holding Nishad rallies, big and small, even launches “Nishad Chetna” rath.

As the Bihar election nears, Nitish yields and announces the inclusion of Nishads in the Scheduled Tribes list. But that’s not nearly enough. Mukesh wants a pledge on the number of seats Nishad will be given – 15 he says – and a say on who will get picked. Nitish, Mukesh claims, makes a verbal promise and Mukesh announces support to Nitish. “But I quickly sensed, he was not acting on the promise, I was not being consulted. I let it be publicly known I was displeased.”

Mukesh’s annoyance with Nitish immediately gets Amit Shah excited; he calls him to Delhi for a meeting. Mukesh flies there and meets Shah thrice at his home. “I wanted firm written commitments on Nishad numbers in the NDA list and I got them, Amit Shah played true to his word.” There and then, Mukesh is enlisted as “star campaigner” for the NDA. “I’ve worked hard, I have used my money to place ads for the NDA, I have travelled relentlessly, I think I have done my job for them.”

So where’s the reward? “People say I want a Rajya Sabha seat, this that. People say I took loads of money. I want nothing other than due importance to Nishads. I am packing my bags for Mumbai. I know the day I join a party the Son of Mallah will be dead.”

Speculation has it otherwise, but speculation cannot be quoted.

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