Elections for the state assembly in the eastern Indian state of Bihar kicked off Monday, as thousands of people queued up at polling stations to cast their votes. The elections, which will be held in phases between Oct. 12 and Nov. 5, pit the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against a so-called “grand” coalition of several regional groups.
The polls in Bihar -- a poor, agriculture-dependent state where approximately 37 percent of the population survives on $1.9 a day (less than the officially designated poverty line figure) -- are being seen as a test of Modi’s popularity. Although Modi’s party scored a landslide victory in last year’s national elections -- helped by a favorable outcome in 22 of the 40 seats in Bihar -- his popularity is believed to have waned over the past few months.
Opinion polls conducted by local media outlets have predicted a closely contested election for the 243 state assembly seats. The BJP is projected to win 42.8 percent of the votes, or 118 seats, while the regional alliance -- led by former ally and current Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal -- is projected to secure 42 percent of the votes, or 112 seats.
So far in the first phase, 46 percent of the approximately 13.5 million eligible voters have cast their votes, according to data released by the Election Commission of India. A total of nearly 67 million people in the state are eligible to vote in the elections.
“A BJP government in Bihar will help us work seamlessly to create jobs for the youth, look after our farmers and ensure overall development, which is the antidote to every single problem,” Modi said last week, touting his “pro-development” reputation and promising jobs in the impoverished state.
Critics of Modi and the BJP, which is perceived by many as a Hindu nationalist party, have accused the Indian leader of fostering religious intolerance and failing to speed up reforms necessary to generate economic investment. Several bills, including those aiming to make it easier for private businesses to acquire land, and those calling for the introduction of a nationwide goods and services tax, have remained stalled in the Indian parliament.
A BJP win in the state would strengthen the party’s hand in the upper house of the parliament in New Delhi -- where it lacks a clear majority -- and help it pass the key legislations.
“[However] if Modi fails to redeem the lost ground by ensuring his party’s victory in Bihar, his government's economic reform program will take a back seat,” Saibal Gupta, secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute, a private think tank, told Reuters. “He'll simply not have the gall to carry out these measures, especially the politically sensitive ones.”