India's Modi seeks to cement power as key state of Bihar votes

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes people would vote vote "in large numbers" in India's poorest state of Bihar.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes people would vote vote "in large numbers" in India's poorest state of Bihar.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SAMASTIPUR, India (AFP) - India's poorest state of Bihar began voting Monday (Oct 12) in a high-stakes election which Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes will help his government push through a faltering reform drive.

The Indian leader, who has promised billions of dollars for development in Bihar, urged people to come out and vote "in large numbers" as polls opened in the first phase of the election.

"I want jobs for the young people of Bihar," he told a campaign rally on Monday. "Bihar must become the strength of our nation." Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in general elections last year, but its promised reforms have been blocked in the upper house of parliament where it lacks a majority.

Modi's ruling coalition, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, is hoping to take control of Bihar, where two-thirds of people lack access to electricity.

"What is most important for us is jobs," college student Sangeeta told reporters outside a polling booth.

"If there are jobs, the youth won't have to leave the state and go elsewhere for employment." The prime minister has personally addressed 10 major campaign rallies, going all out to secure victory in the populous eastern state that would give his government some of the extra seats it needs to break the current logjam.

The BJP needs a win after suffering a humiliating defeat in February elections for the Delhi state assembly at the hands of a fledgling anti-corruption party.

But experts and opinion polls indicate the result is too close to call.

Modi is up against an unlikely alliance of two powerful local leaders, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav, who has served time in prison for corruption.

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

Kumar, a long-time critic of Modi, is credited with kick-starting development and quashing corruption and is seeking a third term.

- Religious tensions -

His tenure contrasts sharply with that of his predecessor Yadav, a sharp-witted former railways minister who presided over years of stagnant growth and spent time in prison for embezzlement.

Bihar has long been notorious for corruption. As the first phase of voting got under way on Monday, Kumar's party was forced to drop a top-ranking minister after he was caught on camera apparently accepting bundles of cash from a businessman.

The campaign has also been dogged by religious tensions after a Muslim man was lynched by a Hindu mob in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh last month over unsubstantiated claims that he was eating beef. Hindus consider cows to be sacred.

After 10 days of silence on the killing, Modi on Thursday used an election rally in Bihar - which is majority-Hindu but has sizeable Muslim, Christian and Sikh minorities - to appeal for unity.

Parts of the state are also in the grip of Maoist insurgents who have a history of trying to intimidate voters, but local media said Monday's voting passed off peacefully.

Voting will be held in five phases, with results due on Nov 8. Nearly 10 million are eligible to vote in the first phase and there are 583 candidates.

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

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

Some observers say Modi delayed pushing through contentious reforms including a land acquisition bill before the polls for fear of losing votes.

"If the BJP wins, it will be a great morale-booster and help them push their economic agenda," analyst KG Suresh told AFP.

"The BJP had to roll back on certain reforms like the land bill, fearing popular backlash ahead of the Bihar election."

While growth is now purring along at around 7 per cent, complaints have been mounting about Modi's failure to secure major reforms.

The BJP has a majority in the lower house of the parliament, but 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 land, taxation and other legislative reforms needed to overhaul the economy.