Vaishali/Chapra: The third phase of Bihar’s assembly elections on Thursday will determine if chief minister Nitish Kumar’s personal popularity can overcome the inability of his coalition ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to soothe upper-caste resentment over key government policies.

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Coalition compulsions have forced the BJP to tone down its right-wing rhetoric, resulting in the alienation of its traditional voting base, at a time when sections of the electorate are also questioning the track record of some legislators fighting for re-election; most of these legislators belong to the BJP. Kumar’s popularity rests on key development schemes and affirmative action the Janata Dal (United)-BJP government has implemented during its term, particularly its focus on extremely backward castes (EBCs) and women.

The government fixed reservation in civic bodies at 20% for EBCs, 50% for women and 10% for Dalits in a move that antagonized upper-caste voters. The coalition had hoped to contain any sense of alienation among the upper castes through the appeal the BJP held for them.

Crunch time: Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Hindustan Times

These include Brahmins, Rajputs and Bhumihars, estimated to make up 15% of the state’s 83 million population.

Nagendra Rai, a Bhumihar farmer from Tiraniya in Raghopur constituency, one of the two seats former chief minister Rabri Devi is contesting, refuses to accept a lower caste person as his village head, illustrating the rifts in a social structure traditionally divided on caste lines.

Rai says he cannot be expected to defer to a person from a caste that’s lower than his own. In the nearby constituency of Vaishali, Shrinath Prasad Singh, a Rajput contractor, echoed the sentiment. “Nitish did nothing for the upper castes, all his policies are always meant only for the backward caste-people," he says.

Kumar seems to have upset the upper castes and land owners with an attempt to hand over land to the farming community. Although the attempt to introduce the Bataidari Bill (sharecropping Bill), aimed at giving tenancy rights to land tillers as against the legal land owners, was withdrawn at a nascent stage, a sense of unease persists among the landlords.

“If the Bataidari Bill passes, it is going to be a huge problem. We will grow just about anything in our lands to retain them with ourselves," said Anil Kumar Mishra, a farmer from Raghupur in Vaishali.

Subhash Singh, a businessman from Chhapra, fears that such legislation would disrupt the inherent relationship between land owners and farmers. Meanwhile, the BJP, with its right-wing rhetoric silenced, has been forced to take the back seat to the Janata Dal (United), or JD-U, in the campaign, unable to dispell the sense of alienation among its traditional vote base.

“In the absence of communal polarization on the part of the BJP in Bihar, the BJP resembles the B team of JD-U in the state," says Jyotirmaya Sharma, a professor of poltitical science at the Hyderabad University and author of Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism.

Some political observers feel these apprehensions may not reflect in the voting pattern and Nitish Kumar’s goodwill may carry the coalition through.

“These issues are more of an academic nature (like reservation of women in panchayats) or of local nature (like the Bataidari Bill), which in the end are not going to be the deciding factor," says Sanjay Kumar, deputy director of Lokniti, a programme for comparative democracy based in Delhi. “Nitish Kumar’s work for two things—roads and law and order situation—is really going to work in his favour."

Kumar is also battling against other odds. Many voters across constituencies voice dissatisfaction with legislators of the ruling coalition who are back in the fray.

One such voter is Jogeshwar Rai, a farmer from Hajipur, which is represented by a BJP legislator seeking re-election. Rai wants the Kumar government to come back to power, but does not want to vote for the candidate he says has done no work to deserve another term.

Sharad Yadav, president of JD-U, says such factors will not block his party’s return to power. “If the MLAs have worked, they will come back. If they have not, they will not get re-elected. However, there is not just one factor; there are lots of other factors too. We will make up for it," Yadav says. His confidence may rest on the general goodwill towards the chief minister for the work he has done in promoting Bihar’s economic development in the past five years.

A senior BJP leader concedes that Kumar has improved his standing while his deputy, the BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi, has failed to stem upper-caste alienation. The net result may be gains for the Congress party, he says.

“Both BJP and JD-U are organizationally weak," says the BJP leader, who doesn’t want to be named. “While Nitish has definitely gone up, Sushil Kumar Modi has gone equally down. He has failed to keep the upper castes with the BJP because of which they will considerably shift (loyalties), and this is where the Congress party will gain."