At the half-way stage, if pundits are to be believed, Nitish Kumar is on course for a second tenure in Bihar. So far the electoral battle, as scripted by the main contenders, has been along predicted lines, with the headlines focusing on development versus caste. But what the electorate thinks is difficult to predict at this stage—no apparent wave is visible after three phases of voting, the last of which concluded on 28 October.
From the beginning, the Janata Dal (United) under the leadership of Kumar, along with its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has sought to focus on the development gains that have accrued in the last five years—these, to a large extent, have revolved around unprecedented road connectivity (2,417km of roads were constructed in 2008-09 compared with 415km in 2005-06). A clever strategy, designed to blunt the caste advantage that some of Kumar’s key rivals, such as Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan, have enjoyed.
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Alongside, Kumar has carefully sought to target the gender vote through symbolic actions—like 50% reservation for women in civic bodies and free bicycles to girls in high school—and by initiating empowerment at the village level through women-led self-help groups (SHGs) in eight districts spread over the north (which went to the polls in the first phase) and south of Bihar.
This was expected to complement the BJP’s hold on upper- caste votes. However, anecdotal evidence, particularly before the third phase of polling in the north-west region of the state above the Ganga river (also a strong electoral base for Prasad and Paswan; Rabri Devi, wife of Prasad and a former chief minister herself, is contesting from the same region), suggests that this is not panning out as expected. Part of the reason for this is the poor performance of the sitting legislators, as well as the fact that the BJP has been forced, by coalition compulsions, to tone down its ideological rhetoric—saffron-lite, as it were.
Now, attention is focused on the final three phases, all of them in the southern half of the state—with the last phase, in areas with a strong presence of Left extremists, expected to be a very close race. Not only is the southern belt agriculturally fertile and hence relatively better off, the caste configurations are far more complex; implicitly, the credit for having delivered development could prove to be the tipping point.
The electoral verdict will be out on 24 November. If Kumar does indeed pull off the expected, it will be the first time that a politician has done so in Bihar without relying on caste.