Odds stacked against Bihar chief

In the village of Darveshpura in Nalanda, residents used to have to wade through chest-deep floodwater or take a 100km detour to reach the nearest town during the rainy season.

But three years ago, a bridge was built over the river Sakri. Power lines followed, and now a health centre painted in pink stands out amid the villagers' brown huts. More classes, at higher levels, are being added to the local school.

Yet, despite all the visible signs of development credited to Mr Nitish Kumar, Bihar's chief minister and leader of the Janata Dal (United), most people in this village of some 200 households are likely to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

"Nitish has done good work but we hear of a Modi hawa (wave)," said farmer Shravan Kumar, alluding to the BJP leader's national popularity that has reached even this little corner of Bihar.

Mr Kumar the farmer chafes at widespread corruption as something that the chief minister has failed to tackle.

What's more, he added : "He is giving many more subsidies to the lower castes."

The complaints are reflective of the views of many of his fellow villagers, who are largely from the upper caste, a traditional support base of the BJP.

They also shed light on how caste remains a potent factor in India's national politics despite various modernising influences.

Much has also been said in the election campaign about good governance and capable leadership, but in the case of Mr Nitish Kumar, being able to tick those boxes is clearly not enough.

Since coming to power in 2005, the Janata Dal (United) politician has changed the face of Bihar, at one time a byword for crime and where kidnappings were once referred to as its biggest industry.

He cracked down on criminal gangs, built a network of roads, improved health care and introduced schemes such as free bicycles for girls as part of his education and gender equality reforms.

Economic growth rose to about 11 per cent from a measly 3 per cent before he came to power.

But Mr Kumar may not reap the gains of his work in Bihar after breaking off ties with the BJP in June last year, when it chose the controversial Mr Modi, a Hindu hardliner, as its prime ministerial candidate.

An opinion poll by AC Nielsen for ABP News on March 29 indicated that the Janata Dal United will win just six of Bihar's 40 parliamentary seats compared with 20 after the 2009 polls.

Mr Modi and his party's new ally Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party are expected to win a total of 21 seats when the results are announced on May 16.

"Caste is thicker than blood in Bihar," said Mr Kanhaiya Bhelari, a senior Bihar-based journalist, on a key reason for the grim forecast for Mr Kumar.

Dr Saibal Gupta of Patna's Asian Development Research Institute noted that while Mr Kumar took a principled stand in ending his party's 16-year alliance with the BJP, it was a risky electoral move.

In the process, he stands to lose the Hindu upper caste votes and may not get as much support as might be expected from Muslims, who worry about Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist agenda.

Mr Modi has failed to shake off accusations that he was negligent, if not complicit, as Hindu mobs went on the rampage against Muslims in 2002 in his Gujarat state, leaving over 1,000 people dead.

The Muslim votes look set to be split between Mr Kumar's party and Congress and its ally Rashtriya Janata Dal.

In the meantime, the BJP is also trying to break into Mr Kumar's support among the backward castes by playing up Mr Modi's humble origins as a former tea seller.

To be sure, there are those like Mr Siddhi Paswan, a 37-year-old daily wage labourer who will vote for Mr Kumar's party out of gratitude. "There is no other politician who has done as much," he said.

But the talk of a Modi wave has caused a stir even in Mr Kumar's own turf in Nalanda, home to the Singapore-supported multinational project to revive an ancient Buddhist seat of learning. Still, Mr Kumar's party is expected to hold its ground there, especially in his village of Kalyan Bigha.

As Mr Dhirendher Kumar Singh, a farmer, told The Straits Times: "Here, no one will dare go against Nitish. It will bring shame to our village."


This article was published on April 18 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.