On the border of Uttar Pradesh, the 32 seats voting Friday could be make or break for the BJP as it seeks to take Bihar. The BJP will be tenser in the second to fourth phases because it senses it is relatively weak in the first and fifth, where polarisation of Muslims and Yadavs can help the grand alliance. If the first two phases leave the BJP short of expectations, then even a sweep of the third and fourth (total 105 seats) might not be enough.
The closeness of this region to UP, particularly the Varanasi connection, leaves the BJP optimistic that this phase is where it has its best chance.
What may work against the BJP’s rivals is a pitch from Mulayam Singh Yadav. The Samajwadi Party chief has travelled to these seats to pitch for his own front, and made a strong speech against grand alliance leaders Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad.
The BJP holds nine of the 32 seats while JD(U) holds 20, the two having fought in alliance in 2010. In the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, the NDA took all five seats (see graphic).
The second phase is crucial not only to the BJP, which is fighting 16 seats, but also for its allies HAM of Jitan Ram Manjhi (7 seats) and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP (6 seats). This phase will be a test for Amit Shah’s experiment aiming to transfer the BJP’s loyal upper-caste Rajput and Bhumihar votes to its partners’ OBC and Mahadalit candidates, and vice versa. Kushwaha and his deputy Arun Kumar are MPs from Karakat and Jehanabad, part of this region.
It is a prestige battle for Manjhi. This will show how effectively he can transfer the Mahadalit vote to the BJP. Again, Manjhi is contesting Imamganj against Speaker U N Choudhary as well as Makdumpur, where Lalu has striven to unite some 40,000 Yadav votes and 14,000 Muslim votes for his candidate Subedar Das, a Paswan. The BJP is trying to rally 30,000 Bhumihars behind Manjhi. Another challenge for Manjhi is in Kutumba; his son Praveen Kumar Suman is up against Rajesh Ram of the Congress.
In the grand alliance, the JD(U) and the RJD too are contesting 13 seats each. The Congress, contesting the remaining six seats, performed poorly last time but is hopeful of winning a couple. Former MPs Meira Kumar and Nikhil Kumar have lobbied to get tickets for their aides in Sasaram and Aurangabad.
The JD(U)’s 18 seats in 2010 was largely due to a fine knitting of Mahadalit and EBC votes with the BJP’s forward-class votes. With Manjhi having exited, the JD(U) will be anxious about how many Musahar votes it can retain. The JD(U) says “minus Manjhi but plus Yadavs” will bring victory in this phase.
The OBC and Mahadalit vote will be key also to the BJP, which cannot bank strongly on Yadav, Muslim and Kurmi votes. Just under an estimated 30 per cent of the voters in this phase are Dalits and Mahadalits.
Four of the BJP candidates — in Nokha, Dinara, Navinagar and Gaya City, seats coveted by state party leaders — have left many in Patna speculating which of them is close enough to PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to eventually become CM.
Dinara’s Rajendra Singh is an RSS veteran and some BJP members see “Manohar Lal Khattar” in him. He is contesting against minister Jai Kumar Singh in a battle of Rajputs. Rameshwar Chaurasia of “Paanwala” OBC caste is the candidate from Nokha. Shahnawaz Hussain reportedly declared Prem Kumar, Gaya candidate, as CM nominee but later denied his statement. Prem Kumar is a five-time MLA and belongs to an EBC caste, Kahar. Rajnath Singh has campaigned in Navinagar for Gopal Narayan Singh, a Rajput with an RSS background.