All eyes in India are turned on the electoral contest in Bihar. The country's third most populous state has over 100 million people who are overwhelmingly rural and poor. Though its economy has registered an average of nearly 10 percent growth annually since 2005, the state's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is the lowest in the nation, and its poverty rate is the second highest.

How this large number of rural poor will vote, therefore, holds outsized implications not only for the state's future but also for India's politics and economy.

Victory in Bihar is coveted by the Hindu nationalist Indian People's Party-led (BJP) coalition and the Grand Alliance of local parties, plus the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress.

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The poll will demonstrate if Prime Minister Narendra Modi still possesses the electoral wizardry that propelled his party to national power in 2014 but failed spectacularly in the February 2015 Delhi poll.

Modi remains popular, but his government's performance has failed to match its soaring rhetoric. Helped by the global fall in oil prices, inflation is under check but the growth rate has levelled off at seven percent.

Foreign investors complain that infrastructure and bureaucracy continue to pose roadblocks. The Bihar contest, therefore, is a crucial test for the prime minister and his party.

Repercussions of Modi's nationalism

What is at stake in the elections, however, is not just who will rule Bihar or Modi's standing as a leader. A far more fundamental issue up for grabs in the electoral posturing is whether Bihar's politics will be nationalised.

It's a matter of scale: all-India vs Bihar - locked in battle are two different idioms of politics. On one side are the Grand Alliance parties that invoke locality by speaking the language of caste justice and Bihari subnationalism.

The Bihar elections will decide if the local will survive the national. A BJP victory will encourage the party to repeat the feat in those remaining pockets in the country where regional parties still hold sway.

 

This is evident in their popular slogan that while Modi is "Bahari" (an outsider), Nitish Kumar, the coalition leader and the current chief minister, is Bihari. It also makes much of a statement by a Hindu nationalist leader that it was time to rethink the government policies of positive discrimination for low castes.

On the face of it, there should be little connection between development and Hindu nationalism. But make no mistake: The murder of a Muslim in a north Indian village for allegedly eating beef, the killing of writers who incurred the wrath of the Hindu right, and packing of state institutions with people whose only qualification is their Hindutva ideology, are not isolated incidents.

Their purpose and effect is to define the nation as Hindu. Some of Modi's supporters have pleaded with him to condemn the recent violent rhetoric and actions of his Hindutva supporters so that the development agenda is not compromised.

Standing in the BJP's way in Bihar are Nitish Kumar, the present chief minister and leader of the People's Party (United) (JD(U)) and Lalu Yadav of the National People's Party (RJD), two local parties.


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Both are veterans of the student movement against Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, and rose as leaders in the wake of the implementation of the Mandal Commission's report in 1989. One of the commission's key recommendations was that the central government should reserve nearly 50 percent of government jobs for unprivileged castes.

The country exploded in protest but the Mandal Commission's language of social justice proved to be too powerful to resist. Emboldened unprivileged castes upended the landscape of politics.

New wave of caste politics

Riding the wave of the new and assertive caste politics, Lalu Yadav emerged as a powerful leader and became the chief minister of Bihar in 1990. A colourful politician, he used homespun humour to masterfully overturn the symbols of caste discrimination.

As chief minister, he walked into Dalit quarters, megaphone in hand. He opened his bungalow to crowds of the poor and unprivileged castes. The privileged castes saw this as disrespecting the office, but Lalu Yadav became a nationwide household name.

A supporter of BJP waves the party flag during an election campaign rally addressed by Modi in Bihar [Reuters]

He had to resign in 1997 because of his involvement in a fodder scam, and his reign was marred by widespread lawlessness. He was eventually convicted in 2013 and served two-and-a-half months in jail, but remains a charismatic and canny politician with widespread influence among unprivileged castes and Muslims.

Nitish Kumar was his ally until 1994, when he broke from Yadav and formed his own party. He even entered into an alliance with the BJP, and served in its central government as a minister from 1998 to 2004.

He became Bihar's chief minister as part of a JD(U)-BJP alliance, which lasted until 2014 when he broke the partnership over the prospect of Modi becoming prime minister. In his eyes, Modi's authoritarian streak and his actions as Gujarat's chief minister rendered him unsuitable as a leader.

But Nitish Kumar is acknowledged for having launched several development schemes, building roads, containing crime, and cultivating a proud, Bihari subnationalism.

Kumar and Yadav, long at loggerheads, have become allies for the phased election currently under way. They have even allied with the Congress to fight the BJP juggernaut.

The alliance may be opportunistic and motivated by self-preservation, but that is irrelevant. What matters is the political effect of their actions. In partnering, they have rekindled the language of caste justice and flaunted their Bihari DNA, accusing the BJP of an elitist economic and divisive political agenda.

The BJP, on its part, regularly reminds the voters of the lawlessness or "jungle raj" under Yadav. It does not openly challenge the positive discrimination for unprivileged castes under the Mandal Commission recommendations, for that would be political suicide.

But the BJP paints the Grand Alliance as captive to casteism, suggesting that while caste divides, the nation unites. This appeal to the educated Bihari privileged castes that have always cringed at Bihar's image as a rural backwater.

The Bihar elections will decide if the local will survive the national. A BJP victory will encourage the party to repeat the feat in those remaining pockets in the country where regional parties still hold sway.

If they win in Bihar, an emboldened BJP will attempt to dismantle and reconfigure institutions that stand in the way of its Hindu nationalist project.

Gyan Prakash is a Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University. His most recent book is "Mumbai Fables", and he is the co-script writer of the film "Bombay Velvet".

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera