Indian PM's party in tight race as voting opens in northern state

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 12, 2015 6:00 AM

By Manoj Chaurasia

PATNA, India (Reuters) - Voting began on Monday in India's northern state of Bihar, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces a major electoral test whose outcome is crucial to his efforts to consolidate power and speed economic recovery.

About 67 million people are registered to vote in India's third most-populous state over the next month in an election spread over five phases that will test the appeal of Modi's policies aimed at industrialization and creating jobs.Women dressed in black burkhas and young men holding identity cards queued outside a polling station as voting began in the district of Begusarai, about 100 km (62 miles) east of Patna, the state capital.

"We are voting for development," said one voter, Siya Ram Singh, as he left the polling station. "Our villages are not developed, all the attention has been focused on towns."

There were no jobs in the state for young people, another voter added.

Votes will be counted on Nov. 8. Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist party is not in power in Bihar. The election could give him the strength to push through planned reforms nationwide by boosting his party's numbers in the upper house of parliament, where it is now in a minority.

Since taking office last year, Modi has struggled to build support in parliament for an ambitious overhaul of the economy.

"This is a crucial, crucial election for Modi," said S. Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group in New Delhi.

"His prestige is on the line. If his party does well, it'll be a huge boost to his credibility. If it doesn't, he will be a much diminished figure."

Among the major changes being blocked by opposition parties are a business-friendly land purchase law and the biggest overhaul of taxes since independence from Britain in 1947. Victory in Bihar will help Modi as lawmakers in parliament's upper house are picked on the basis of parties' strength in state assemblies.Opinion polls are divided on the outcome, but some show Modi may struggle to capture the state.Bihar, traditionally seen as a bellwether of national politics, is one of India's poorest states, and its population of 100 million exceeds that of Germany. Modi has visited 13 times over the last three months to deliver speeches, as he tries to win power in a region where caste allegiances traditionally decide elections.

Two opinion polls last week showed a majority win for a coalition of regional parties that campaign for the empowerment of lower caste Hindus and the minority Muslim community. Another showed the BJP winning enough seats to rule alone.

(Writing by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Clarence Fernandez)