There’s an old joke in Bihar: “People don’t cast their votes, they vote for their caste.”
Caste allegiances have dominated the political landscape of Bihar, a possible swing state in the country’s April-May general election, as well as much of India, for decades.
But the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -led alliance hopes to sweep this state known for extreme poverty, crime and corruption on a platform of caste-blind development.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is selling his campaign as a radical shift from the troubled rule of his predecessor, Lalu Prasad, whose 15 years in power were propped up by caste ties.
The battle lines reflect a wider political debate on whether development can convince voters to abandon old loyalties in a country whose recent economic boom has produced a growing middle and urbanised class but has also missed out millions.
Like Kumar, the traditionally more pro-market BJP is betting that its focus on development and good administration in states where it is in power could help them win the general election.
“Most of the people are talking about development and no longer about caste,” Nitish Kumar, a BJP ally, said in the state capital, Patna. “Development breaks down all the caste barriers.”
Kumar got his breakthrough in 2005 when he came to power after a state election, but Prasad and his allies still hold the majority of Bihar’s 40 seats in the national parliament.
If Kumar can build on three years in power, it would boost the main opposition bloc led by the BJP at the expense of one of the ruling Congress party’s key allies.
Lalu Prasad is a charismatic leader whose trademark humour can make a budget speech sound like a stand-up routine. But critics dubbed his reign a “Jungle Raj” of kidnappings, Maoist killings and caste violence as state rule broke down.
Prasad, the current federal railway minister, handed over the reins of chief minister to his wife in 1997 after being implicated in a large-scale corruption scandal, but most believed he still called the shots.
Nearly 40 percent of Bihar’s 90 million people live below the poverty line, according to a World Bank report on the state.
Bypassed by an economic boom, Bihar’s hunger levels, shoddy infrastructure and lack of industry make it one of the most backward regions in South Asia. Corruption drove investors away and stymied schemes to help millions of poor.
Choked with traffic, some streets in Patna are still unpaved and riddled with potholes filled with stinking water from burst pipes. Until recently, few ventured out after dark as kidnappings and armed robbery turned much of the capital into a ghost town.
“Lalu (Prasad) never thought of building roads, because he thought building roads would not fetch you votes so long as you mobilised your own caste,” said political analyst Amulya Ganguli.
Enter Kumar. Civilian killings fell 80 percent since he took power and police say corrupt officials no longer enjoy state patronage. Some 31,000 people have been convicted in three years.
More of Patna’s shops and restaurants now stay open late. “Earlier I used to go home on my motorcycle at 12 or 1 a.m. and it was dangerous. Now there is no problem,” said Abhay Kumar Jha, a waiter in a luxury hotel who will vote for Kumar.
When reporters visited Lalu Prasad’s campaign headquarters, a group of cycle rickshaw drivers and merchants loitering outside agreed Kumar is starting to turn Bihar around.
“Development has taken place, houses have been built in my area,” said Rajindra Sao, a grain seller. “Earlier officials were fleecing me in the name of taxes. Now that has gone.”
But Prasad is still a hero to many poor and lower castes as his rise from humble farmer to chief minister was seen to give millions a voice. It is far too soon to write him off.
His Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party accuses the former BJP-led central government of holding Bihar back when it was in power until 2004 by not releasing funds to the state.
RJD says Kumar’s development plank is mainly for the rich.
“Caste is the first election issue. Development is the second issue,” said Ram Bachan Roy, who helps run the RJD campaign. “The cases of torture against the poor, dalits, minorities have increased manifold.”
Caste tension can be seen in Korhar, a village only about an hour’s drive outside Patna, where paved roads are rare and underweight toddlers roam around naked in the dirt.
Villagers’ main concerns are jobs, food and getting Korhar’s only water pump fixed. When they work for upper caste landlords, they are given food served on separate plates so that they don’t “contaminate” their social betters.
“The upper caste discriminate against us. There are pumps in an upper caste area but we aren’t allowed to go there,” said Sanjay Kumar, a farm labourer.