The BJP’s traditional hold over ‘urban’ pockets, chief minister Nitish Kumar’s popularity on home turf Nalanda and RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s political clout will be put to test in the third phase of assembly elections in Bihar on Wednesday.
Covering 50 seats across six districts, this is the toughest phase for the three-party Mahagathbandhan or grand alliance (GA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA with both dispensations having claimed a substantial lead in the previous two phases involving 81 seats in the 243-member Bihar assembly.
Kumar’s credibility as the chief minister -- eight of his 10 years at the helm with friend-turned-foe BJP -- and his popularity in Nalanda are at stake in the third phase. Analysts say he is facing his first major challenge in 25 years in the district’s seven assembly seats.
In the 2010 assembly polls, Kumar’s Janata Dal(United) bagged six of these seats while BJP, now his rival, won the Rajgir reserved seat.
This phase is also crucial for ally Lalu Prasad Yadav on two counts. Besides his influence in 10 assembly segments of Saran, the Lok Sabha seat he had represented thrice, the political future of sons Tej Pratap Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav is dependent on the outcome.
This is the maiden election for Tej Pratap and Tejashwi, contesting the Mahua and Raghopur seats.
For the BJP, this phase covers several urban and semi-urban pockets, including state capital Patna, that have been its strongholds. The NDA’s hopes also rest on the considerable presence of upper caste and Dalit voters in the 50 seats in this phase.
However, the BJP has taken no chances with Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing 17 rallies so far to ensure a victory necessary for the NDA, to eventually get a majority in Rajya Sabha for passing bills that have been stalled by the opposition.
Modi has been backed by a contingent of central ministers while front bodies like the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini have helped the NDA constituents in the high-pitch electoral battle.
In 2010, the BJP had won 20 of the 50 seats going to the polls on Wednesday. It is contesting 34 seats this time while allies Lok Janshakti Party, Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) are contesting 10, four and two respectively.
The stakes are higher for the BJP in Patna, Bhojpur and Buxar districts, where it had won 12 seats last time.
The JD(U) had won 23 seats while RJD won seven of these 50 seats in 2010. This time, RJD is contesting 25 seats, leaving 18 for JD(U) and seven for Congress.
Kumar and Prasad are banking on consolidation of backward and Dalit votes after having raked up the reservation issue over RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s job quota review remark.
After a brief Dussehra break, the campaigning for the third phase was marked by an exchange of barbs between leaders of the NDA and GA over trivial issues.
The GA targeted the Modi government for a bid to scrap quotas for SC, ST and OBCs, and Union minister VK Singh’s dog remark after two Dalit children were burnt alive in Haryana.
The NDA struck back, attacking Kumar over his meeting a tantric and a sting video showing JD(U) legislator Satyadev Singh purportedly accepting bribe from a businessman.
Apart from Prasad’s sons, the third phase will also decide the fate of Brishen Patel, Nand Kishore Yadav, Shrawan Kumar, Harinarayan Singh, Shyam Rajak and Chandrika Rai -- all former ministers – deputy chairman of the state assembly Amarendra Pratap Singh, former union minister Akhilesh Prasad Singh, rebel JD(U) leaders Gyanendra Singh Gyanoo and Anant Singh, and Vivek Thakur, son of BJP leader CP Thakur.