Economy Challenges Caste Identity as India’s Bihar State Votes

India’s Bihar began a month of elections today that will test whether doubling economic growth is enough to get its chief minister re-elected in a state where caste and class allegiances have dominated.

By curbing crime, repairing as many as 5,400 kilometers (3,375 miles) of national highways and district roads, and raising spending on education and health in one of India’s poorest states, the government of Nitish Kumar, 59, raised economic growth to an annual average of 10.7 percent in the four years to March 2009, according to the World Bank. Expansion averaged 4.5 percent in the previous four-year period, the bank said.

“Any win for the current government” will reflect popular endorsement of Kumar’s ability to win “a new lease of life for the state,” said Shaibal Gupta, secretary of the Patna, Bihar-based Asian Development Research Institute.

With Bihar accounting for 40 seats in the 545-seat federal lower house of parliament in New Delhi, whichever party runs the state has traditionally influenced national government formation.

The main challenger to Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) is likely to be Lalu Prasad, 62, a populist politician and former federal rail minister, whose Rashtriya Janata Dal campaigns for the empowerment of lower caste Hindus and the minority Muslim community. Bihar has 83 million people, more than the population of Germany.

“The election results will show whether caste-based politics will now take a back seat,” Gupta said.

Kidnap, Murder

Prasad’s party, which ruled the state for 15 years up to November 2005, has 54 seats in the 243-member state assembly to 88 for Kumar. The government in Bihar rules in a coalition with the main federal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

“During Lalu Prasad’s regime, Bihar was completely ruined in every aspect -- law and order, the economy, health and education,” Ranjan Prasad Yadav, a federal Janata Dal (United) lawmaker, said by phone from Patna. “People will not repeat the previous mistake.”

In 2004, there were 411 cases of kidnap for ransom, according to figures on the Bihar police website, compared to 55 so far in 2010. Murders fell from 3,861 in 2004 to 2,295 this year.

Five years ago “people were scared to go out after sunset,” said Sanjay Kumar, a New Delhi-based analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, who is from Bihar. “Your car may be stolen, your son may be kidnapped,” he said.

Poor State

While Bihar has 8.5 percent of India’s population it accounts for 1.6 percent of its gross domestic product, the World Bank says. Landless farm laborers make nearly half the workforce, compared to 27 percent nationally. About 52 percent of its people are illiterate. The state’s per capita income in the year to March 2008 was a third of the national average.

Elections will be held in six phases including today’s voting to make it easier for security forces to protect polling stations, and will run to Nov. 20. Counting is scheduled for Nov. 24.

“Nitish has fooled everybody. Those who propped him to power are now feeling betrayed,” Prasad, a former railway minister known for his rustic speeches, said in an election rally last week broadcast on television. “The so-called development in Bihar is all a sham.”

The Congress Party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is fighting the election on its own and will hope to increase its percentage of votes, said analyst Sanjay Kumar.

At least 154 of the 635 candidates contesting for 47 seats in today’s first stage of polling face criminal charges, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, citing signed affidavits submitted to the Election Commission.

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