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Month-long elections begin in Bihar

The first of the state's 243 constituencies went to the polls on Thursday. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is likely to succeed in his bid to win another term in office for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

A security officer stands guard, as voters display their election identity cards in the state of Bihar state

A security officer stands guard, as voters display their election identity cards in the state of Bihar

Millions voted peacefully Thursday at the start of the six-phase assembly poll in Bihar where Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is facing a tough challenge from a splintered opposition.

There were reports of some early incidents including minor fights between rival groups. Electronic voting machines malfunctioned in a few polling booths while in another area an election official was beaten up. But for a state notorious for poll related violence, it was a quiet start.

Improving conditions

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar

Nitish Kumar, a former engineer, won the election five years ago after promising better infrastructure and development. To an extent, there has been some improvement in the state's infrastructure with better roads and electricity supplies. Moreover security for normal citizens, which had been very poor earlier, has also improved. Kumar claims credit for the turnaround.

For decades, Bihar, which sends 40 of the 545 lawmakers to the national parliament in Delhi, has been lagging behind in terms of most social and economic indicators. As one of India's poorest and most corrupt states, politics in Bihar has often revolved around caste groups. And political parties have been quick to exploit the situation.

Action instead of empty promises

Interestingly, the main poll issue is development. All the political parties have been wooing voters by promising more and better development.

There is a simple explanation: the mindset of voters has changed. They want action, not empty promises.

More development

Shivnath Jha from Madhepura who voted Thursday said his village would vote for those who ushered in progress.

"I will vote for a political party that promises us development. Our choice is clear, better our lives and you will get our vote. Development is what we need and that is what we will vote for," he says.

"Candidate who will work for us"

Similar sentiments were expressed by Shambu Paswan, a villager: "We will vote for a candidate who will work for us. Not for a person who stands on party loyalities and forgets us after the election. We won’t vote for that person."

Kumar is opposed by a coalition headed by the Rashtriya Janata Dal Party whose chief is Lalu Prasad Yadav. His party once ruled Bihar for 15 years before being toppled in 2005.

Split with the BJP?

A confident Lalu Prasad said his party would sweep to victory at the elections. "Today the first phase of polling is going on and we are going to sweep the whole of Bihar. Nobody can save Nitish Kumar’s government because he has failed on all fronts."

BJP leaders Anant Kumar, Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad

BJP leaders Anant Kumar (l.), Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad

Hoping that his work would speak for itself in the past 5 years, Kumar spurned an offer from his ally, the BJP, to allow their star campaigner Narender Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, to campaign for the ruling coalition. This has sparked rumours of a possible split with the BJP in the event his party wins with a comfortable majority.

Kumar has not forgotten that Modi was allegedly responsible for the sectarian riots in his state in 2002 that claimed over 1,000 lives.

The main political parties have promised to campaign even harder in the next five rounds of voting. Votes will be counted on November 24.

Author: Murali Krishnan, New Delhi
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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