NEW DELHI/PATNA/CHHAPRA : In all of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar that are voting across seven phases, it is a direct contest between the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and an anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) front led by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress. Bihar is one of the largest states in terms of seats where the two national alliances have locked horns, and the outcome of the contest will also have an impact on the assembly elections due next year.

Senior leaders of the NDA are confident that the combined popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Nitish Kumar will be crucial to ensure it retains its dominance in the state where the alliance had won 31 out of 40 seats in 2014. The BJP is pinning its hopes on issues such as the airstrikes in Balakot, the earlier surgical strike in 2016, and 10% reservation for general category as some of its key campaign strategies.

“National security is the biggest issue for the people of Bihar and they realise the importance of the NDA government at the centre. The 10% reservation for the general category is a game changer for people here because no other government had the political will to take such a decision although the demand had been pending for a long time. Finally, Modi had to take a step in this direction," said a senior BJP leader who is part of the Nitish Kumar cabinet.

On the ground, the core support base of the BJP feels that the combination of Modi and Kumar gives the alliance the edge and the policy schemes of the central government, particularly rural electrification, adds its weight.

“Bihar is a contest between two alliances. One alliance has a prime minister and another has too many prime ministerial candidates. For people like us, the choice is clear as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done good work while the opposition camp is only about a few leaders coming together to defeat Modi," said Vijay Kumar, a seed shop owner in Danapur. The lack of a cohesive and larger opposition narrative other than ousting Modi is a factor in Bihar too as in other states.

Kumar could be a decisive factor for the NDA’s performance in the polls. While he is a popular chief minister who has returned to power, a section of voters hold it against him that he switched sides to join the NDA in 2015 after ditching the RJD-Congress combine.

“In 2014, in the general election, BJP got a lot of traction because the opposition camp was totally fragmented. This time what also matters is whether Nitish Kumar’s return to NDA bolsters its chances or not. While some in my village feel it has helped NDA, others feel Kumar could damage their prospects as he betrayed the mandate of 2015,"said Badri Narayan Shah, a farm labourer from Mehia village near Chapra.

BJP leaders explain that the caste combination in the state is also working in favour of the NDA because most of the prominent caste leaders of state are with NDA. Senior leaders of the party point out that caste balance can be seen in the ticket distribution of NDA as BJP had given more tickets to upper caste and other backward classes (OBCs) whereas Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) has reached out to the other backward castes and extremely backward classes (EBCs) giving them six tickets each out of its share of 17 seats.

“In 2014, BJP contested with smaller parties like Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJSP), but this time even Nitish Kumar has realised that he is much stronger in NDA rather than in any other alliance. The NDA in Bihar represents every community and the seat distribution between alliance partners reflects it," the BJP leader added.

The performance of Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Jan Shakti Party, which is contesting on six seats, will also be significant to NDA’s electoral math. While Paswan has ruled himself out of the contest, he has been campaigning extensively in the seats where his party is contesting. The NDA is banking on the Scheduled Caste (SC) outreach of LJSP to increase its electoral presence.

“Paswan has his support base in this region. He and his family have been elected from a few seats in almost every election. This time it would be interesting to see if his candidates can pull off a win because Paswan himself is not contesting," said Vishwanath Kumar, a farmer from Vaishali.

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were the two key states which helped script history for Modi in 2014. Bihar is a high-stakes election for the BJP because within a year of being voted to power at the centre, the party had lost assembly elections in the state. Bihar is a prestige fight for the BJP-led NDA.

“Opposition parties in Bihar have lost credibility because of the leadership of Rashtriya Janata Dal. NDA has managed to create a perception that its leadership is stronger and people also relate to this narrative because of the work done by chief minister Nitish Kumar and the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi," said Shashi Sharma, a Patna-based political analyst and principal of Magadh Mahila College.

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