Modi's $27b pledge to Bihar 'won't seal victory'

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) being greeted by Bihar's Chief Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar (second from right), and Governor Ram Nath Kovin (in black) upon his arrival in the state on Tuesday.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) being greeted by Bihar's Chief Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar (second from right), and Governor Ram Nath Kovin (in black) upon his arrival in the state on Tuesday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It will help BJP at polls but party faces tough fight to wrest control of key state: Analysts

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged 1.25 trillion rupees (S$26.9 billion) to propel development in Bihar but analaysts say his party still faces an uphill battle to wrest control of the key political state in upcoming elections.

Mr Modi, who hopes a win in the October-November polls will bolster his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) national reform agenda, dished out an infrastructure package on Tuesday covering airports, roads and education institutes.

He promised it would "change the fate of Bihar". Others said it was a sign of the BJP's desperation.

"Whether it's Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or West Bengal... till all these states improve, our country will not progress," Mr Modi said at a public meeting.

Analysts said the prime minister's generosity would help the BJP's push for votes but would not necessarily ensure victory in Bihar, which has a population of 99 million that sends 40 MPs to the Parliament.

"It is not a game-changer... it's a boost for the BJP campaign. The argument that (Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar) was making that the centre (federal government) was neglecting Bihar, from the BJP's point of view, has been negated," said Mr Ashok Malik, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. "It is a close election."

India's third-most populous state is also one of its poorest. It is part of the "cow belt" that has always influenced federal politics and is crucial to any national ruling party.

"Yes, (the package) makes a difference in that he is trying to give a sense of a person who has so much of power and can distribute money that makes a difference for poor people," said Professor Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "There is a desperation on the side of the BJP that is clearly visible."

The BJP already has the majority of Bihar's federal parliamentary seats but not in the state assembly.

It faces a tough fight against an alliance of regional parties, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, which is led by the popular Mr Kumar.

A poll conducted by television channel ABP News-Nielsen in July said the alliance of Mr Kumar, who heads the Janata Dal (United), would get around 129 seats, while the BJP and its allies would get 112 seats in the 243-seat assembly.

Currently, Janata Dal (United) has 115 seats and the BJP, 91.

The regional alliance, analysts said, has an edge over the BJP in caste equations.

The alliance has the support of Muslims and a combination of lower-caste voters, while the BJP is favoured by upper castes and is trying to win over sections of Dalits, formerly known as untouchables.

A Modi wave in May last year secured the BJP 22 seats and the Janata Dal (United) just two seats out of 40.

The BJP needs a win to boost numbers in the Upper House of Parliament and stem a slide in its political fortunes after a massive defeat in elections in Delhi in February.

Analysts said the BJP needed to prevent a consolidation of the opposition, which has already stalled the reform agenda in Parliament.

"It has become important for the BJP not to lose. If BJP loses Bihar, it gives opposition an idea that if you gang up, you can stop the BJP," said Mr Malik. "Mr Modi will have to go back to the drawing board for political calculations."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2015, with the headline 'Modi's $27b pledge to Bihar 'won't seal victory''. Print Edition | Subscribe