Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces a crucial test Monday when Bihar, one of India’s largest and poorest states, begins voting in polls that could have major consequences for his troubled reform drive.
Modi has mounted a no-holds barred campaign, promising Biharis billions of dollars for development in a state where many of its 104 million people still vote along caste lines.
He is up against an unlikely alliance of two powerful local leaders, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his predecessor Lalu Prasad Yadav, who has served time in prison for corruption.
Their rivalry goes back decades, but both men — who command widespread support among the lower castes — have put their differences aside to thwart Modi, highlighting the premier’s polarising nature.
Voting begins on October 12 and runs in five phases, with the results due on November 8.
Modi himself has been at the forefront of his party’s campaign, addressing a host of rallies, including one on Friday near the town of Aurangabad attended by about 10,000 people.
“This 21st century election will show where Bihar stands not only on the map of India, but also on the map of the world,” Modi told the crowds.
He accused the opposition of failing to better the state’s fortunes in their combined six decades in power, citing high youth employment and poor power infrastructure.
Two-thirds of Biharis lack access to electricity, according to the World Bank.
“I’m supporting Modi because he wants to develop Bihar,” said Sonu Jaiswal, 37, as she watched Modi in a giant field.
“We’re 100 per cent sure the Modi government will win.” But analysts say the outcome is too close to call.
And as criticism mounts that Modi’s pledge to transform the economy is running out of steam, observers say a defeat for his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will heighten the sense of declining momentum.