Patna, Oct 31 Development, new caste arithmetic, bataidari (sharecropping) and the minority card will be the main issues on test as 42 constituencies, nearly a dozen of them Maoist-affected, in Bihar's eight districts go to polls Monday in the fourth round of the six-phase assembly elections.
The stakes, perhaps, are the highest for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and his alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the combine of arch rivals, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Ram Vilas Paswan, is vying to regain lost ground.
The third phase of elections Oct 28 in the Bihar's fertile belt was a litmus test for Nitish Kumar's claims of good governance and rule of law.
But in the fourth phase, Nitish Kumar is likely to face the anger of the upper castes who fear that he would enact a new law to protect farm tenants, who share crop with land owners as rent, if voted to power for the second time.
The issue was highlighted by rebel JD-U MP Rajeev Ranjan Singh alias Lalan Singh, who cautioned people, particularly landed farmers, that the return of Nitish Kumar would mean a new law to protect sharecroppers - tenant farmers who till the land and give part of the yield to the landowner in lieu of rent.
Singh, who represents Munger constituency and belongs to the powerful Bhumihar landed upper caste, warned against a civil war in the state on the issue.
The MP resigned as state party president earlier this year and has since been waging a virtual war against Nitish Kumar.
Singh campaigned for the Congress and openly made it clear he meant to teach Nitish Kumar a lesson for misleading people by saying there were no plans to enact a new law to protect sharecroppers.
In the last three-four months Singh has tried hard to divide the members of the Bhumihar caste and to create a negative image of Nitish Kumar among other landed castes over bataidari (shrecropping) issue in Munger, Begusarai and Lakhisarai districts.
'Unlike the first three rounds, the fourth phase will be a test for Nitish Kumar's friend-turned-foe Lalan Singh's campaign on bataidari and the chief minister's claims of development,' a political watcher said.
Months before the campaign began, Nitish Kumar had assured the upper castes that their land was safe and his government had no plans to enact a new law to protect sharecroppers.
In Bihar, members of the upper castes, particularly the Bhumihars and Rajputs, own large tracts of land in rural areas.
In July last year, the Bandopadhayay Commission on land reforms suggested that the state government bring in a new act to protect sharecroppers. It also recommended a cap on land ownings and computerising the land records.
Nearly 50 percent of Bihar's 83 million people live below the poverty line (BPL), the highest in India, according to a World Bank report.
However, Nitish Kumar must be hoping to counter the anger among the upper castes, if any, through his new caste arithmetic.
The chief minister is banking heavily upon 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.
In the 2005 assembly polls Lalu Yadav's RJD was routed in this belt. But this time, the RJD-LJP combine's hope lies with their traditional support base - the Yadavs and Muslim, Paswan and upper castes, who are said to be unhappy with Nitish Kumar.
The Congress is keen to make its presence felt in the wake of the euphoria created by party general secretary Rahul Gandhi's visit. More or less the Left parties are trying to retain their base by making bataidari a big issue.
Though campaigning ended Saturday peacefully with no major incidents of violence being reported, the polling in this phase will be a challenging task for the Election Commission as well as the state government in view of the Maoist threat.
The commission has decided that polling in 14 of 42 constituencies in the Maoist-affected areas will be held from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and in the others it will go on till 5 p.m.
The first three rounds of the polls - Oct 21, Oct 24 and Oct 28 - passed off peacefully. They were held for 47, 45 and 48 seats respectively out of the 243 Bihar assembly seats.
The over week-long canvassing saw top leaders of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) comprising Nitish Kumar's JD-U and the BJP and the rival RJD-LJP combine as well as the Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) hitting the campaign trail.
The campaign witnessed several wars of words and was occasionally marred by personal attacks.
The run-up to the elections saw spirited campaigning by BJP president Nitin Gadkari and senior leaders L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, and RJD chief Lalu Prasad, besides Nitish Kumar.
About 10.04 million voters are eligible to determine the electoral fate of 568 candidates in the fray in Begusarai, Lakhisarai, Bhagalpur, Khagaria, Munger, Banka, Jamui and Patna districts.
The heavyweights in the fray in this phase of elections include state ministers Ashwini Kumar Choubey, Nand Kishore Yadav, Damodar Raut and Ramnarayan Mandal, besides LJP president Ramvilas Paswan's brother and state party president Pashupati Kumar Paras and senior India Administrative Service officer's wife Parveen Amanullah, who is the daughter of Syed Shahabuddin, a champion of Babri Masjid cause since the 1990s.
After Nov 1, the next rounds of the elections will be held Nov 9 and Nov 20. Votes will be counted Nov 24.