Nitish Kumar has been in power since 2005, and although he showed much promise then with development and service delivery in India’s poorest state, banning liquor and curbing crime, his popularity has been waning of late.
Public opinion surveys favour Tejaswi Yadav of the opposition Rastriya Janata Dal (RJD), the son of Laloo Yadav, the once popular minister who is in jail for his involvement in the ‘fodder scam’. There is also the smaller Lok Janashakti Party led by the charismatic Chirag Paswan championing the cause of Bihar’s Dalits.
Only 15% of Bihar’s population are ‘forward’ castes like Brahmins, Bhumihars and Rajputs and Muslims make up a 17% vote bank which the RJD is trying to tap, while the BJP has pushed the Hindu-right agenda, including the Ayodhya issue.
Birganj-based journalist Chandra Kishore, a keen Bihar-watcher, says the caste and religious undercurrents there are already having an impact on the politics of Province 2, and this could be amplified in Nepal’s own 2022 federal elections.
Bihar gets a lot of bad press within India (even Nepal) for having poor development indicators. Kathmandu ignores the neighbouring Indian state even though its Jogbani and Raxaul checkpoints handle most of Nepal’s trade.
Nepal is also important for Bihar: most of Nepal’s rivers empty into the Ganges in Bihar, and an estimated 200,000 Biharis work in Nepal’s construction industry, factories, the service industry, and as traders.
Deep in the villages of Province 2, people cannot stop talking about Bihar elections and how it will impact on their lives. Bihar’s caste and Muslim vote will affect the Madhes, as will a rise in crime or political instability. But Bihar’s development in infrastructure, health and education also lifts living standards in the borderlands of Nepal.
How Biharis vote will also be a gauge of whether Narendra Modi’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis and other pre-pandemic economic woes have affected the BJP’s support base nationally. After all, the BJP has lost six state elections in the past two years, and there are critical votes coming up in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu next year.
How well the BJP does in Bihar will indicate Modi’s strength on the national stage, and that has implications for all of India’s neighbours, including Nepal.