Patna, Nov 8 (IANS) Caste arithmetic will be on test in Bihar Tuesday as 35 constituencies, more than a dozen of them in Maoist-affected areas, go to the polls in the penultimate round of the six-phase assembly elections.
This phase is crucial for both Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad as it will virtually decide who will rule Bihar. The stakes are perhaps the highest for Nitish Kumar, who is seeking the people’s mandate for another term, while Lalu Prasad is claiming that he is coming back to power.
About 8.1 million people are eligible to vote in this round to determine the electoral fortunes of 490 candidates in the eight worst drought-hit districts of Gaya, Patna, Nalanda, Bhojpur, Arwal, Jehanabad, Nawada and Sheikhpura.
The heavyweights in this phase include Bihar ministers Hari Narayan Singh, Prem Kumar, Jitan Ram Manjhi and Bhagwan Singh Kushwaha.
It will make or mar the ruling Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its arch rivals, the RJD and partner Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), are vying to regain lost ground. “The caste arithmetic will play a dominant role - over the issues of development, good governance and rule of law,” Soroor Ahmad, a political watcher who hails from the region, locally known as Magadh with its historical importance, told IANS.
The JD-U-BJP hope lies with the caste factor in Nalanda as well as in Gaya, Bhojpur and Patna. Most of the candidates in Nalanda, the home district of Nitish Kumar, belong to his Kurmi caste. Nalanda is locally known as ‘Kurmistan’ as more than half the electorate consists of Kurmi caste people.
In Bhojpur and Patna, the chief minister is banking heavily on the extremely backward castes and Mahadalits along with other backward castes, including voters from his own caste - Kurmi - and its natural ally Koeri and Muslims.
On the other hand the RJD-LJP candidates are depending heavily on the overwhelming support of the traditional caste support base of Yadavs, Paswans and Muslims. Besides, they are hopeful to make a dent in the upper castes who are unhappy with Nitish Kumar over a proposed law to protect farm tenants.
The region also has some strong pockets of Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist supporters, which will give a tough time to the ruling alliance as well as the main opposition combine.
The Congress is making all efforts to make a difference in the Magadh belt.
Magadh is still regarded as Maoist-affected by the authorities. It is infamous for caste massacres due to rivalry between Maoists and the Ranvir Sena, a private militia of the landed upper castes.
Though campaigning ended peacefully with no major incidents of violence reported, ensuring safe polling in this phase will be a challenging task for the Election Commission as well as the state government as almost a third of the constituencies are in Maoist-affected areas.
Till now, the four phases of the elections - to pick a new 243-member legislative assembly - have passed off peacefully except for stray incidents of violence.
The outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist early this month declared that it would intensify attacks to disrupt the election process and to enforce its boycott of the polls. As many as 33 of Bihar’s 38 districts are Maoist-affected.
The campaigning saw top leaders of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), opposition RJD and the LJP combine as well as the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Left parties hit the campaign trail.
These included BJP’s L.K.Advani and Rajnath Singh and JD-U leader Nitish Kumar, RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi. The canvassing frequently witnessed a war of words and was occasionally marred by personal attacks.
There are several candidates with criminal records in the fray.
The last round of the elections will be held Nov 20. Votes will be counted Nov 24.