Prime Minister Narendra Modi is promising jobs and development as he campaigns for the Bihar polls that could define the rest of his term, while his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pushes a Hindu agenda.
Braving the scorching sun, thousands of men and women clad in bright shirts and saris trudged miles to Modi’s campaign rally last week in Bihar. Voting in phases to choose a new state legislature will start on Monday and the results will be out on November 8.
Modi’s message to nearly 100,000 people gathered near the banks of the the Ganges was that only his BJP could make one of India’s poorest regions an industrial powerhouse like his home state of Gujarat.
“A BJP government in Bihar will help us work seamlessly to create jobs for the youth, look after our farmers and ensure overall development, which is the antidote to every single problem,” he said to rapturous applause.
An impressive tally in the election will give the BJP more seats in the Rajya Sabha or upper house of parliament, where it lacks a majority, making it easier to pass legislation to modernise India’s economy.
However, pundits say a drubbing for the BJP may foment dissent in the party against Modi, while strengthening a hardline faction that believes the Prime Minister’s economic programme loses votes and that he must push Hindu-first policies in Hindu majority, but multi-faith, India.
While Modi takes the high ground promising jobs and growth, his party’s campaign has turned to religious polarisation, a road-tested method of uniting fractious Hindu castes behind the BJP.
Sushil Kumar Modi, a senior party leader in Bihar, said if the BJP came to power in the state it would impose a strict ban on killing cows, considered holy by many Hindus. Emotions over the issue have been high after the lynching of a Muslim man in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh over rumours that he had slaughtered a cow.
Since Modi took over as Prime Minister, several BJP-ruled states have tightened laws protecting cows.
Modi’s main rival in the election, Bihar’s current Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, was a former ally of the BJP who is respected for cleaning up the state’s crime-ridden politics and building up its infrastructure.
But their personal political differences led to a break-up of the alliance between the BJP and Kumar’s Janata Dal-United in 2013. Kumar, known for his secular, left-of-centre politics, broke the partnership when Modi became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate because of Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Eighteen months after the general election that swept him to power, anger in the countryside has forced Modi to drop a policy to make it easier to take over farmland for industry and infrastructure – key to his economic plans.
And the 65-year-old’s aura of electoral invincibility was dented when the upstart, anti-establishment Aam Aadmi Party crushed the BJP in elections in the capital New Delhi in February.
“If Modi fails to redeem the lost ground by ensuring his party’s victory in Bihar, his government’s economic reform programme will take a back seat. He’ll simply not have the gall to carry out these measures, especially the politically sensitive ones,” said Saibal Gupta, secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute, a private think tank.
An opinion poll published on Wednesday suggested the BJP was widening a narrow lead but Modi is taking no chances. He plans 20 rallies in the next few weeks in Bihar, and the state’s hotels are packed with BJP workers from across the country.
Kumar’s party says the BJP is looking to create religious tensions in the run-up to the election in Bihar, where 17% of the population is Muslim, higher than the national figure of 14%.
The theory is that such tensions and sectarian clashes lead to increased support for the BJP from the majority Hindus.
Kumar’s record of clean governance has taken a hit since he split with the BJP, not least because he has now partnered with veteran politician Lalu Prasad, who has done prison time for corruption.
But for the state’s religious minorities, Kumar’s message is still preferable to that of Modi.
“We don’t agree with the brand of politics that Modi and his party practice,” said Muhammad Asgar, who lives in Dumrawah village, about 20 km from Banka, where Modi addressed the rally.
The BJP’s message is two-fold. “We’ve only one agenda for Bihar. And the agenda is development,” said the party’s national general secretary Bhupendra Yadav.
But Sushil Kumar Modi said: “This election is a fight between those who eat beef and those want an effective ban on cow slaughter.”
(With inputs from Reuters)