The nail-biting wait to find out who will lead Bihar for the next five years ends Sunday, a vote that will determine the political fate of a clutch of powerful regional leaders and likely shape the economic policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Exit polls from the month-long election have merely prolonged the suspense, giving little indication of whether Modi’s promise of jobs and development made a dent in a region where religious and caste alliances have long dominated politics.
Counting of about 38 million votes begins at 8 am but it could become clear by midday whether Modi or a rival grouping of chief minister Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad – the so-called grand alliance -- will control Bihar’s 243-member assembly. Many experts say a split verdict is unlikely.
The election is seen as a barometer of many issues shaping Indian politics.
First, a victory for Modi will help deflate the Opposition which is seeking to corner him over what it says is jobless growth and for failing to rein in hardline Hindu groups campaigning on issues that are seen weakening secularism in multi-faith, modern India.
Second, the outcome of the Bihar election will possibly set the political momentum for at least four crucial state elections – Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala and Assam – next year and then in the key state of Uttar Pradesh in 2017.
Modi needs to win most of these elections to gain control of the Rajya Sabha, where the government is struggling to build support for a business-friendly land bill and a new Goods and Services Tax. Bihar sends 16 members to the upper house.
Much is at stake for Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad as well. A poor performance could see both facing political rebellion, possibly ending their unquestioned control over their parties.
“The Bihar election is going to be a turning point … It has become a battle of prestige for all sides,” said Razi Ahmed, public intellectual and director of the Gandhi Museum in Patna.
“Never in history has a prime minister addressed 30 rallies in a state election.”
The bitter, high-octane campaign started with a message of development but, as the race tightened, the discourse worsened, taking the focus away from jobs and development in an impoverished state where two-thirds of the population has no access to electricity.
The BJP began its campaign speaking the language of development under Modi but in the closing weeks of electioneering the party turned to a strident brand of right wing Hindu politics. This included repeated reference to cow slaughter that has become a political tool and rallying cry for both Hindu hardliners and their opponents.
The importance of the Bihar election could be judged from the fact that Modi held 30 rallies – four before the polls were announced and 26 after it – during 13 visits to the state over the last three months.
This, despite the BJP’s enviable performance in last year’s general elections in which it, along with its allies, won 31 of the state’s 40 seats.
(With inputs from agencies)