By: John Elliott

The voters of Bihar, India’s poorest state, have a difficult choice deciding who to vote for in current assembly elections if they put aside their usual caste and religion-based preferences and go for the party that will be best for development.

They can choose a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) headed by Nitish Kumar, chief minister for the past 10 years, who has transformed many aspects of daily life in what was a mafia-ridden basket-case society.  Or they can choose Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, who has dominated the BJP’s election campaign but who has not announced the name of the regional politician whom he would anoint as chief minister.

This suggests that the voters’ safest choice is Kumar, the capable leader they know, who can be expected to expand the roads, bridges, electric power and other government-funded infrastructure developments that have been built, along with improved basic education and law and order.

Modi has no such track record, but he and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) do understand and promote private sector business and entrepreneurship, which Kumar has neither done nor talked about beyond some hopes of food processing factories. Modi would also bitterly resent what would be a humiliating defeat by Kumar and could be expected to restrict central government help for the state.

Bihar is now ready to expand from its largely government-funded economy, and from farmers producing mostly for their own consumption, to productive private sector business activity, says Shaibal Gupta, who runs the Bihar-based Asian Development Research Institute. This means encouraging local small endeavors ranging from roadside outlets to industry with inward investment from companies based elsewhere. There is virtually no such investment, and tens of thousands of hard-working Biharis emigrate elsewhere in India and abroad to find employment ranging from menial manual labour to software engineering.

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Nationally, this is an important election because Modi desperately needs to win, for two reasons. First, he cannot afford politically for the BJP to repeat the devastating defeat that it unexpectedly suffered in Delhi’s assembly elections early this year. His image has been hit both by the government’s lack of tangible achievements and by his failure to rein in his Hindu nationalist extremists, and neither he nor his unpopular henchman, BJP president Amit Shah  need another setback.

Second, the BJP needs a clear victory in order to begin to build up its minority status in India’s Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament whose members are indirectly elected via the states. The government’s ability to implement urgently needed new legislation will be curtailed until the BJP has a majority of the seats, which will not be till 2017-18 at the earliest, and even later if it loses in Bihar.

My hunch is that Kumar will win, but I’ve heard about the possible advantages of a BJP victory while visiting Bihar in the past week. I asked in the capital, Patna, and elsewhere, “which party does Bihar need,” rather than journalists’ more usual “who will you vote for” and “who do you think is winning.”

Bihar’s politics are sharply polarized around caste and by the unbridgeable and politically—sharpened divide between the majority Hindus and the Muslims who make up 17 percent of the population. That divide was dramatically illustrated when Amit Shah, reflecting the BJP leadership’s fear that it was losing, brazenly tried to rally the Hindu vote on October 29 by saying that “crackers will be burst in celebration in Pakistan” if the party did not win.

Bihar has been one of India’s poorest states for decades. Some 80 percent of the population are “multi-dimensionally poor” compared with a national average of 55 percent, according to estimates based on a UN Human Development Report index that includes levels of health, education, and standard of living as well as income.

A social and political revolution was set in motion by Lalu Prasad Yadav, a populist politician who parades his roots by keeping cows in his Patna garden. He became chief minister in 1990 and ruled for 15 years together with his uneducated wife Rabri, who stood in for him for nine years after he was banned from office and briefly imprisoned for corruption. He empowered his own backward Yadav caste and others, replacing the established high caste social elite that had thrived under British rule and continued to dominate after independence.

He ignored economic development, seeing no need to do anything more than caste empowerment. He is still regarded as a hero by many Yadavs who make up 14 percent of the population, even though he led the plunder of the state’s exchecker in a fodder scam which he inherited from his predecessor. That cost the poverty-stricken state and its government the equivalent of US$200million in lost revenue.