Modi's high-stakes Bihar polls battle to go down to the wire

A woman in the village of Thakurganj in Bihar getting an ink mark on her finger to indicate that she has voted. Mr Modi was the face of the BJP's election campaign in Bihar and addressed more than 25 rallies.
A woman in the village of Thakurganj in Bihar getting an ink mark on her finger to indicate that she has voted. Mr Modi was the face of the BJP's election campaign in Bihar and addressed more than 25 rallies.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Exit polls divided over whether Indian PM's BJP can wrest power from alliance in key test

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has found little comfort in exit polls ahead of election results in the eastern state of Bihar, seen as a key test of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity.

With the voters' verdict due out tomorrow, the polls remained divided on whether the BJP will be able to beat a coalition of parties and win power in the country's third-poorest state. Four polls released on Thursday, as the month-long voting wrapped up, predicted a win for the alliance led by Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (U) leader Nitish Kumar. The coalition also includes the opposition Congress party.

The polls indicate that the alliance will win between 117 and 135 seats in the 243-seat state assembly.

A fifth poll by Today's Chanakya, which has correctly picked many election results, gave the BJP-led alliance a comfortable victory with 155 seats and a vote share of 46 per cent. A sixth exit poll released on Thursday predicted no clear winner.

The BJP is hoping for a win in Bihar to push up numbers in the Upper House of Parliament, where it is in the minority, and has been unable to pass crucial reforms such as the goods and services tax.

Analysts said Bihar, with more than 66 million voters, is a test for Mr Modi because he was the face of the BJP's election campaign, and addressed more than 25 rallies.

A Modi wave in the general election last year saw the BJP win 22 seats while the Janata Dal (U) captured just two out of 40 parliamentary seats in Bihar.

Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies analyst N. Bhaskara Rao said: "These elections are more important for Modi than for Nitish Kumar... Is the Modi magic on the wane?

"Never before have we seen a prime minister campaigning in such a manner in a state election. It was a personalised campaign of a federal leader positioning himself against a state leader."

Mr Kumar, a former Modi ally turned rival, is a popular regional satrap who has initiated growth and improved law and order in the state. His campaign focused on regional pride, asking voters if they wanted a "bahari", meaning an outsider, like Mr Modi, or a Bihari to lead Bihar.

In the last state elections, Janata Dal (U) won 115 seats and the BJP, 91. The alliance has the support of Muslims and a combination of lower-caste voters, while the BJP, which tried to woo the youth and female vote, is favoured by the upper castes.

The Bihar elections, analysts said, would also set the tone for upcoming crucial state polls in the states of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh over the next two years.

"The financial community is watching these elections with bated breath because it determines the ability of the BJP to consolidate its strength in the Upper House. This trend will have a bearing in future elections," said Mr Rishi Sahai, managing director of consulting firm Cogence Advisors in Delhi.

"Investors, at the end of two years, are banking on the BJP getting a majority in the Upper House," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2015, with the headline 'Modi's high-stakes Bihar polls battle to go down to the wire'. Print Edition | Subscribe