India's Modi neck-and-neck with opposition in pivotal Bihar vote

 Indian voters queue to cast their ballots at a voting centre in Thakurganj village in Bihar, on Nov 5, 2015.
Indian voters queue to cast their ballots at a voting centre in Thakurganj village in Bihar, on Nov 5, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (REUTERS)- Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalists and opposition parties were running neck-and-neck in elections in India's pivotal eastern state of Bihar on Thursday, according to exit polls.

The vote is being viewed as a referendum on Mr Modi's premiership after he addressed at least 30 campaign rallies, a departure from tradition in state elections, which usually centre on local issues and leaders. "His reputation is really on the line," said N. Bhaskara Rao, an analyst at the Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi.

A defeat for Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India's third-largest state, home to 104 million people, would dent his chances of building the parliamentary strength he needs to push through reforms. His party is in a minority in the upper house.

Four polls released after voting ended showed a coalition of regional parties would win the largest number of seats in the state. Two showed Mr Modi ahead.

The coalition of local parties led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is expected to win 124 out of 243 seats in Bihar's assembly, giving them a majority, according to a simple average of the exit polls calculated by Reuters.

The Hindu nationalist BJP and allies are expected to win 112, the polls showed - a worse performance than last year when the same alliance in the general election captured three-quarters of the state's parliamentary seats.

The record of pollsters is patchy, however, because India's first-past-the-post system can exaggerate the impact on seat shares of swings in the popular vote. Party leaders will have a nail-biting wait until official results are announced on Sunday (Nov 8) .

The Bihar election is seen as a barometer of many key issues shaping Indian politics; the changing roles of caste and religion and the rising aspirations of many Indians.

Mr Modi's campaign started with a message of economic development but, as the race tightened, shifted to appealing to religious and caste alliances in a region where these have been dominant themes.

He has disappointed some supporters who voted for him in the hope that he would accelerate an economic transformation that began in the 1990s.

His administration has faced criticism for failing to rein in hardline Hindu groups that are campaigning on issues, such as a banning eating beef, that cut against the grain of secularism in multi-faith modern India.

This election is critical for Mr Modi's efforts to win control of parliament so he can pass tax and labour reforms. The upper house is selected on the basis of parties' strength in state assemblies.