NEW DELHI - Ballots cast Monday by hundreds of thousands of voters in India’s eastern Bihar state will test Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and influence his ability to press ahead with an economic reform agenda. The crucial polls taking place in one of the country’s poorest states could also determine whether his right wing Bharatiya Janata Party pushes ahead with a Hindu agenda in the coming months.
Monday’s elections in 49 constituencies was the first round of staggered polls that will be held over five stages across the vast Bihar state ending November 5. About 66 million voters are eligible to participate and the results will be released November 8.
With the huge stakes, Modi has been campaigning extensively in Bihar, which his party wants to wrest from a regional party, the Janata Dal (United). The BJP is pitted against what has been termed “a grand coalition” forged by two regional leaders, current Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, and Lalu Prasad Yadav.
As in the 2014 general election, Modi has promised to bring jobs and growth to the poor and underdeveloped region, which is impatient for access to better education and development.
Development is a key issue with voters like Dani Hassan, who runs a mobile repair shop in the state capital Patna. Although he is skeptical about Modi delivering on his promises, he said “there should be improvement, progress. Look at the job situation, there are so many unemployed.”
In Bihar, caste may trump politics
Political analysts say development may not be a clinching issue in a state where politics has revolved around caste for decades. While the BJP is trying to garner the vote of upper caste Hindus, its opponents appeal to lower castes and Muslims.
“Both sides are talking about development. But underlying it all is caste lineup. I have never seen an election so polarized along caste lines. There are signs of forward castes versus the backward castes”, said independent political analyst, Neerja Chowdhury, said from Patna.
She said support for the BJP is more pronounced in urban than in rural areas.
Opinion polls have forecast a close result. A victory would tighten Modi’s grip on national politics and on his party, and hand him more seats in the upper house of parliament, making it easier to pass crucial reformist bills on tax and land. A defeat will bring him under more pressure from opposition parties who are blocking his economic reform program and who accuse him of pushing a right-wing Hindu agenda.
Modi’s spectacular performance in last year’s general elections was followed by victories for BJP in four states, giving him an aura of invincibility. But the party was unexpectedly trounced in local elections held in Delhi in February this year.
“After their defeat in Delhi Assembly election, the word started spreading that Modi’s magic is on the decline, BJP’s popularity is on the decline. If they lose elections in Bihar, this will gain momentum and opposition parties will gather faith that Modi and BJP is not invincible, there is a chance they can defeat Modi and BJP if they remain united,” said Sanjay Kumar at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi who conducted a poll in Bihar
Barometer for Hindu hardliners
The election in Bihar also comes amid rising tensions over what some see as an effort by the BJP to push religious polarization. Since Modi took power, several states have tightened laws protecting cows, considered holy by Hindus. But the issue turned volatile when a Muslim man was mobbed to death on the outskirts of Delhi two weeks ago on rumors that he had eaten beef.
Sanjay Kumar feels that “a victory of BJP would certainly bring this hardline Hindutva to forefront rather than taking a backseat. If that happens then definitely hardliners within the BJP would try and pursue this as a policy in the coming months, coming years.”
In a tweet Monday, Modi urged Biharis to vote in large numbers and said “I particularly urge my young friends to cast their vote.”