Modi looks to Bihar polls to kick-start reform drive

Indian PM pledges billions in development aid for impoverished state as voting begins

SAMASTIPUR (Bihar) • India's poorest state, Bihar, began voting yesterday in a high-stakes election that Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes will give his party the presence in Parliament it needs to push through a faltering reform drive.

Mr Modi, who has pledged billions of dollars for development in Bihar, urged people to come out and vote "in large numbers" as polls opened in the morning.

"I particularly urge my young friends to cast their vote," he posted on his Twitter account.

His promises of all-inclusive economic growth propelled his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victories in last year's national election and four of five other states over the past two years.

But his government has been unable to push promised reforms past India's Upper House of Parliament, where it lacks a majority, making success in state elections crucial.

Mr Modi has gone all out to secure victory in Bihar after his party suffered a humiliating defeat in the February polls for the New Delhi state assembly to a fledgling anti- corruption party.

Mr Modi has gone all out to secure victory in Bihar after his party suffered a humiliating defeat in the February polls for the New Delhi state assembly to a fledgling anti-corruption party.

His BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is hoping to wrest control of Bihar state with a promise of economic development in a state where two-thirds of the people lack access to electricity.

"What is most important for us is jobs," college student Sangeeta said outside a polling booth yesterday. "If there are jobs, the youth won't have to leave the state and go elsewhere for employment."

Mr Modi is up against an unlikely alliance of two powerful local leaders, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his predecessor, Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Mr Kumar boasts a solid record of growth in Bihar and Mr Yadav has been jailed for corruption.

Their rivalry goes back decades, but both men - who command widespread support among the lower castes - have put their differences aside to thwart Mr Modi.

The BJP's secret weapon is Mr Jitan Ram Manjhi, who comes from a lower caste known for eating rats.

"The poor are still deprived in Bihar, even after more than a decade of growth," said Mr Manjhi, who was the state's chief minister for nine months in 2014-2015.

"If the BJP is in Bihar, the same government that's in the centre, they will run together. That will benefit everyone socially and economically," he said.

Bihar, India's third-most populous state, has never been ruled by the BJP on its own, with elections being traditionally won by regional parties and alliances.

Many of its 104 million people still vote along caste lines.

Voting will be held in five phases over the next four weeks, with results due on Nov 8.

Armed police were on duty as voters queued to cast their ballots across 10 districts of Bihar.

Nearly 10 million voters are eligible to vote in the first phase and there are 583 candidates.

While the BJP has a majority in the Lower House of the Parliament, it has only about a quarter of the 245 members in the Upper House, where seats are distributed based on the strength of political parties in state assemblies.

That has allowed the opposition parties to block the government's critical land, taxation and other legislative reforms needed to overhaul the economy.

A win in Bihar would give Mr Modi momentum in about a dozen more state polls through 2017 that will determine control of the body.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2015, with the headline 'Modi looks to Bihar polls to kick-start reform drive'. Print Edition | Subscribe