Bihar is not a state but a state of mind, says one of the numerous one-liners on India’s poorest state. The state’s per capita income is a quarter of the average national income, but Bihar has often proved to be a bellwether of Indian politics, at least across the Hindi heartland. The rout of the Congress in the early 1990s and the rise of regional forces and the BJP were played out in extremes in Bihar. Bihar is a land of extremes, politics included.
The current election in Bihar will test the sustainability of a “coalition of extremes”, stitched together by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, of extremely backward castes (EBCs), the lower rungs of the Dalits and the upper castes. It will test the endurance of a decade-old alliance of Kumar’s JD-U with the BJP.
For Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan, this election will mark the difference between life and death — neither will survive another defeat. The election will put to severest test Rahul Gandhi’s strategy for reviving the Congress - which is to shun alliances and offer an alternative to regional politics driven primarily by caste loyalties. This is the first election after the controversial verdict on the Ayodhya dispute and indicates its electoral impact, if any.
Nitish Kumar’s social coalition of the extremes is packaged in a superstructure of development politics, which was alien to Bihar’s political vocabulary. Compared to national standards, Bihar still remains a drag - but it has moved from its position five years ago with regard to crime control, delivery of public services and basic infrastructure.
Incumbent regimes retained power in 13 of the 16 states that voted in the last two years; Kumar seeks to stay with the national trend in this aspect.