Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces a key test when Bihar begins voting on Monday in a high-stakes election that is crucial for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s reform programme and the political future of a regional secular alliance led by chief minister Nitish Kumar.
Modi launched a relentless campaign ahead of the first day of the five-phase election as the BJP looks to edge out Kumar and his ally, RJD chief Lalu Prasad, and maintain the momentum of its Lok Sabha win to shore up its position in the Rajya Sabha where it lacks a majority.
A win in Bihar will give the BJP more seats in the Rajya Sabha, making it easier to pass key reformist legislation such as the controversial Goods and Services Tax bill which have been stuck because the ruling alliance doesn’t have the numbers in the upper house.
A loss in Bihar, on the other hand, will give the opposition an upper hand and may foment dissent in the party against Modi, who began to look less invincible after the BJP’s spectacular defeat in the Delhi assembly election in February.
An unprecedented number of alliances are vying for power in the Bihar assembly election. Apart from the grand alliance, or Mahagathbandhan, between the ruling Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress, there is the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, the Samajwadi Party-led Third Front and a never-before united Left Front.
Top leaders from the grand alliance and the NDA launched a no-holds barred campaign in the first phase with Prime Minister Modi addressing eight rallies after the election dates were announced and four before the announcement.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi also addressed a rally each. Chief minister Nitish Kumar touched 46 out of 49 assembly seats while Prasad addressed election meetings in 39 assembly constituencies.
It has been a bitterly-fought campaign so far. All the parties in the fray have focused on development in the backward state, but have not shied away from caste and communal politics as well.
The BJP is looking to consolidate its upper caste vote and is pinning its hopes on driving the Mahadalit vote away from the Janata Dal (United) by joining hands with former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi.
Nitish Kumar’s secular alliance is banking on Muslims, who account for 17% of Bihar’s electorate, and is also hoping to win a chunk of the Yadav and Kurmi votes, a key constituency in the caste-ridden state.
It’s a do-or-die election for Nitish Kumar whose soaring popularity over kick-starting development in the state has been dented by his decision to join hands with Lalu Yadav, who critics accused of running a “jungle raj” in the 15 years he and his wife were in power.
For Lalu Prasad, it’s a question of political rehabilitation and continuance of family in politics while maintaining some relevance. Should he fail to muster enough numbers, he faces political oblivion.
Political opponents traded barbs in the run-up to the election with the beef controversy and Delhi’s alleged bid to scrap the reservation policy becaming key campaign issues. Lalu Prasad stoked controversy with his comment that Hindus also ate beef, prompting Modi to say the former chief minister had insulted the Yadav community.
As the election campaign reached fever pitch, Modi hit out at his political rally in Gaya by saying RJD stood for “Rojana Jungle raj ka Dar”, or fear of jungle raj daily, and its ally JD-U was “Janata ka Daman aur Utpidan”, oppression and suppression of people. Nitish Kumar shot back by saying BJP means Badka Jhootha Party, or party of big liars, and Bharatiya Jumla Party.
The campaign was peppered with abusive terms such as chaara chor (fodder thief), narbhakshi (cannibal), jallad (executioner) and shaitan (demon).
Security will be tight for the first phase as six of the nine districts going to the polls on the first day are affected by left-wing extremism. With the fear of a Maoist attack looming large, the Election Commission has decided to deploy 87,600 paramilitary personnel for the poll.
The results will be announced on November 8. Pre-poll surveys predict the election will go down to the wire.
A CNN-IBN and Axis survey projected a big victory for the JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance. It predicted the grand alliance will win 129-145 seats in the 243-member state assembly with a 46% vote-share. It pegged the BJP-led NDA, just 87-103 seats with a 38% vote-share.
On the other hand, an India TV C-Voter survey has given 116 seats to the JD (U)-RJD combine with an edge to the BJP with 119 seats amidst reports that anxiety has gripped the BJP following an internal assessment that the Bihar election may end in a photo finish.
Full coverage: Bihar elections