Amid threats of Maoist violence, Bihar polls enter last lap (Curtainraiser - Phase 6)

Friday, November 19, 2010

PATNA - The six-phased Bihar elections enters the last lap Saturday when 26 constituencies, 18 of them in Maoist strongholds, go to the polls with officials fervently hoping that the exercise proceeds as peacefully as the earlier rounds.

Caste arithmetic, rampant corruption, rule of law and development will be on the anvil as 426 candidates test their luck in the elections being held in five drought-hit districts of Gaya, Aurangabad, Rohtas, Kaimur and Buxar.

The stakes are high in this make-or-mar electoral exercise for both Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, seeking the people’s mandate for another term, and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad, desperate to scramble to power in his home state.

While Nitish Kumar, who heads the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) has alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for company, Lalu Prasad has tied up with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP).

About six million voters, who are eligible to vote, will decide the fate of the two rival camps.

“The last round will witness a close fight and caste will be a key factor to decide the outcome. Rampant corruption at the district to block level will also be an issue,” political watcher Soroor Ahmad told IANS.

Another analyst, Satyanarain Madan, added that caste could overshadow other factors at the ground level.

The ruling coalition is banking heavily on the support of upper castes, extremely backward castes and Mahadalits along with other backward castes, including voters from Nitish Kumar’s own caste Kurmi, Koeris and Muslims.

However, the RJD-LJP candidates are hoping to bag the votes of their traditional base — Yadavs, Paswans and Muslims. They are hoping to dent the upper castes vote base, unhappy with Nitish Kumar over a proposed law to protect farm tenants.

The region, infamous for caste massacres due to rivalry between the Maoists and the upper caste militia Ranvir Sena, also has strong pockets of supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati and the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML).

The Congress, which won only nine seats in the last election, is making all efforts to make a difference in the last round.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son, party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, both campaigned in the last round in the hope of mustering more votes.

Other top leaders too made it a point to be in Bihar in this phase in a last ditch effort to garner votes. These included BJP’s L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh.

The run-up was marked by Maoist guerrillas attempting to derail the process by torching campaign vehicles, blasting bridges and pasting posters calling for a poll boycott.

Officials admitted that ensuring safe polling in this phase would be challenging for the Election Commission as well as the state government.

The Election Commission has cut down polling hours in 18 of the 26 constituencies.

“The balloting will take place in 18 constituencies in the Maoist-affected areas only till 3 p.m.; in the remaining constituencies it will end at 5 p.m.,” an official said.

The first five phases to pick a new 243-member legislative assembly have passed off peacefully except for stray incidents of violence.

The outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist earlier this month vowed to intensify attacks to disrupt the election process and enforce its boycott of the polls. As many as 33 of Bihar’s 38 districts are Maoist-affected.

Votes will be counted Nov 24.

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