What will Bihar choose – development or caste?

By Deepak Nagpal | Updated: Oct 16, 2015, 09:31 AM IST

The 243 Assembly constituencies in Bihar are going to elections in five phases this year, between October 12 to November 5. Who will form the government, or for that matter who will not form the government, will be known on November 8 when the votes will be counted.

The political equations have turned upside down since the last elections in 2010. While allies BJP and JD(U) have now become opponents, bitter foes Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) and Lalu Prasad Yadav-led RJD have turned friends.

The five-year period between the two elections has also seen the emergence of Jitan Ram Manjhi as a force in the state. A former JD(U) CM during some of these years (when Nitish quit following debacle in 2014 Lok Sabha polls), Manjhi has now formed his own party Hindustani Awam Morcha and has trucked with the NDA which also includes Ram Vilas Paswan's LJP and the RLSP.

Also Read: 2015 Bihar Assembly Elections - An Overview

On the other hand, JD(U), RJD and Congress are fighting together as 'one', after Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party left them mid-way and joined hands with the NCP and other parties for a third front. Left parties will be another force in the 2015 elections.

Political equations apart, the results of the 2015 Bihar Assembly Elections will be decided on the basis of issues that are closer to people's heart.

In this age, elections are mostly decided on the issue of development and corruption. However, Bihar is a different case where caste factor is still likely to play an important role unless the electorate there decides to shun it altogether.

The BJP-NDA led NDA has centered its poll campaign on the development issue and that is why, Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the face of development at the Centre – is also the face of the campaign in Bihar. He has already held a number of rallies in the state and promised to lift Bihar from the depths of backwardness. While announcing lakhs of thousands of crores for the state's development over the next few years, Modi has neither shied away from stating that Bihar still lacks in terms of all-round and inclusive growth, and neither has he minced words in reminding its people that the state is still part of the 'BIMARU' family. But, he has promised to the electorate that he will ensure Bihar is brought on the track of development and growth like his home state Gujarat.

Nitish, on the other hand, is seeking votes on the governance he and his party has provided over the last 10 years, albeit a major part of that term in alliance with the BJP (and the latter is claiming credit for the same, too). Under Nitish as CM, Bihar has seen development which it was devoid of under the RJD rule – law and order situation has improved considerably, electricity has reached many villages, road network has undergone vast improvement. And Nitish has made 'Special Status' for Bihar an issue, arguing he needs the same along with funds from the Central government to accelerate the pace of development in the state.

“Statistics and data, though important, cannot be the only criteria of a job well done. When I see empowered young girls and future of Bihar riding on bicycles, clad in school uniforms, adding wings to their dreams, I consider it as a job well done. When thousand more people visit state-run hospitals in their hours of pain and misery and come out satisfied with a feeling of being helped, I consider it a job well done. When I see people roaming the streets of Bihar, without a shred of fear for safety and the confidence that in their state, the rule of law prevails, I consider it a job well done. A job well done is when people of Bihar take pride in being called a Bihari,” Nitish recently wrote in the huffingtonpost.in, making a case for the 10 years of development his party's government has provided.

Meanwhile, caste has always been an important factor in Bihar elections. However, Nitish Kumar-led JD(U)-BJP alliance did help shift the focus on development in the 2010 elections. But, as the 2015 elections approach, it is becoming clear that the caste factor has not gone away from Bihar politics – voters may have tried to prioritise development over caste but it seems, politicians are still not ready for the same.

Also Read: Can `Grand Alliance` in Bihar stop Narendra Modi wave?

"Caste-based voting will be as sharp as it has been in the past," the BBC quoted political scientist Sanjay Kumar as saying.

Manjhi has effectively played the caste card ever since he was uprooted from chief ministership by Nitish Kumar. Manjhi has even hit out at NDA partner Paswan, saying he and not the LJP leader was a true representative of dalits. Other politicians are, meanwhile, trying to secure their votebank by meeting caste leaders or by organising caste-based rallies and meetings. While the BJP has joined hands with Manjhi, a popular Mahadalit leader whose community has 15 percent vote share in the state's politics, Lalu is doing the same for the Nitish-led alliance by seeking to consolidate different caste groups in their favour. Nitish, too, tried to woo voters using the caste card by including few more castes in the list of Extremely Backward Class earlier this year.

However, amidst all this, what is ironical is the fact that the polls have become a direct fight between two leaders who espouse development-based politics as their forte – both Modi and Nitish.

Another issue that could play an important part in the Bihar polls is of jobs and education. While traditionally students from Bihar have migrated to metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Pune for higher studies and jobs, the education scene has become somewhat better for them over the last few years. While two central universities were set up and an IIT started functioning in the state during the UPA tenure, an IIM is also under the works whose foundation has already been laid. Furthermore, the state government too pitched in and established several colleges which have multiplied the education opportunities available to the Bihar youth within the state. But, more remains to be done when it comes to primary and secondary education. People expect the government schools to raise their standards so that those who can't afford private schools are not left to worry about their children's future. Also, one area of concern is the mass cheating that takes place in Bihar during conduct of exams – not just at school level but also during college-level and professional exams. Recent media reports have exposed the scale of menace that is plaguing the state's education system.

Jobs, or employment opportunities, however continue to remain an area of concern. Private sector has not flourished in Bihar like it has in other states and their capitals. Government jobs cannot fulfill the needs of the unemployed or ready-to-be-employed Bihar youth and that is why they still have to seek a better future in other states. While there is nothing wrong in moving to metropolitan cities for better employment opportunities, however, it is the government's job to ensure the youth are provided jobs within the state and unnecessary hardships are not forced upon them in the form of relocation.

Corruption, like other states, has plagued the government machinery in Bihar as well and it is more evident in government works, like award of tenders for civil projects. Privatisation of key sectors and adoption of technology to bring in e-governance (and now, m-governance) are the need of the hour which can help weed out corruption to a greater extent. While corruption is still not the biggest issue in Bihar like in Delhi, it will still play an important role in deciding who wins based on the promise of clean governance. On this front, Nitish Kumar appears to be on a weak footing after aligning with Lalu Prasad, who has been convicted in the fodder scam and can't contest elections.

A recent pre-poll survey (by Huffington Post and CVoter) also listed the important issues playing up on Bihar people's minds and the findings were on expected lines. The top two issues were development-oriented – Unemployment (17.3%) and Electricity supply (13.3%) – while inflation emerged as the third most important issue (12.9%) ahead of corruption (5.5%). Local Roads (5.2%), Local Schools/Colleges (4.8%), Status of law and order (4.8%), Water supply (4.6%) and Women security (3.7%) were some of the other issues that pollsters found were likely to play a role in electorate deciding which party or alliance to vote for.