Patna: Good governance, rule of law, development and a new caste arithmetic will be on test Thursday as 48 constituencies in Bihar`s fertile belts vote in the third round of assembly polls, with the stakes perhaps highest for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
About 10.3 million voters are eligible to vote to determine the electoral fate of 785 candidates in six districts - Gopalganj, Siwan, Vaishali, Saran, East and West Champaran.
The first two rounds of polls took place Oct 21 and 24 for 47 and 45 of Bihar`s 243 assembly seats respectively.
Unlike the first two rounds, the third phase will be a test for Nitish Kumar`s claims of good governance and rule of law as well as his development plank.
The ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of Nitish Kumar`s Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) currently holds 27 of the 48 seats.
While they would look to maintain that dominance, the combine of Lalu Prasad`s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ram Vilas Paswan`s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) would also want to make their presence felt as will the Congress.
The RJD-LJP holds 14 seats, Congress 1, Bahujan Samaj Party 1, the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML) 1 and Independents 4 in the belts.
The NDA candidates are heavily depending on the chief minister`s plank in the belts notorious for lawlessness, including kidnapping, extortion and murder by gangsters and dacoit gangs.
Before Nitish Kumar came to power in November 2005, Siwan was said to be under the rule of criminal-turned-politician, former MP Mohammad Shahabuddin.
Similarly, dacoit gangs operated freely and conducted kidnappings in Bagaha and Bettiah in West Champaran district as well as in Gopalganj.
The chief minister never fails to remind the electorate that the rule of law has been established and more than 50,000 criminals have been convicted during his rule.
He also used the fear factor to woo voters, warning of a re-run of crime if he was not voted to power.
The RJD-LJP combine wants to make a dent into Nitish Kumar`s popularity by playing the development card in Saran and Vaishali. Lalu Prasad and Paswan reminded people that they brought development as railway ministers.
Lalu Prasad is currently MP from Saran, but Paswan was defeated in the last Lok Sabha polls in Hajipur in Vaishali - considered as his stronghold.
The two leaders` hope lies with the new caste arithmetic of Yadavs-Paswans-Rajputs. The Rajputs will be polarised if the community leader Prabhunath Singh`s formula to oust Nitish Kumar clicks.
Singh, a former MP, deserted Nitish Kumar after some differences and is working hard to move the Rajputs away from him.
But Nitish Kumar decided to counter Yadavs-Paswans-Rajputs with the extreme backward castes and Mahadalits formula.
The over 10-day canvassing saw top leaders of the NDA, opposition RJD and LJP combine as well as the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) hitting the campaign trail.
The period witnessed a war of words and was occasionally marred by personal attacks.
The run-up to the election saw spirited campaigning even by BJP president Nitin Gadkari, senior leaders L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, general secretary Rahul Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, RJD chief Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar.
All of them addressed large election rallies to woo voters.
The heavyweights in this phase include former chief minister Rabri Devi contesting from two constituencies of Raghopur in Vaishali district and Sonepur in Saran district, JD-U`s Birshen Patel from Vaishali and BJP`s Renu Devi from Bettiah.
There are several candidates with criminal records in the field like gangster Manoranjan Singh alias Dhumal Singh of the JD-U who is in fray from Ekma in Saran.
After the third phase, the next rounds of elections will be held Nov 1, 9 and 20. Votes will be counted Nov 24.