A visit to one of the poorest places in India, a nation suffering the most serious Covid-19 outbreak outside the US, shows why Prime Minister Narendra Modi's coalition is ahead in polls in the first state election since the pandemic began.
The eastern state of Bihar, which is set to count votes on Tuesday, already suffered from entrenched unemployment and creaking health infrastructure before the pandemic hit. Since then jobless rate has climbed to more than double the national average as migrant workers in far-flung cities came home, and places like the village of Pakahan suffered from widespread flooding.
"I don't expect any change for me or my village whichever government comes to power," said Surendra Mahto, 48, from his deluged house, now only accessible by boat. "But I will vote for Modi — he's given me a house and a toilet."
Maintaining control of Bihar, a state with more people than any country in the European Union, is crucial for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party: it sends 40 lawmakers, the fourth highest of India's 28 states, to the federal parliament. A substantial win in the state election would also help the party wrest more seats in the upper house of parliament where it lacks a majority, making it easier to push through reforms needed to revive an economy headed for the worst contraction among Asia's largest nations.
Modi has gone all out to woo the state's voters, with opinion polls indicating the ruling coalition of the BJP has the edge. The prime minister inaugurated $5.5 billion in infrastructure projects ranging from bridges and highways to water supply and sewage over just two weeks in September.
"The pace of reforms in Bihar has accelerated," Modi said at a rally in Gaya in October. "It can't be allowed to slow.
When more than 10 million laborers and their families walked along India's scorching highways to reach home during the nation's virus lockdown back in March, many of them were heading to Bihar. Their daily struggle to survive since then has dominated the campaign.
Despite Bihar recording the lowest per capita income in India, Modi is a popular figure throughout the state thanks to flagship programs providing toilets, cooking gas and houses to the poor. Still, the outcome of the vote remains unclear due to growing dislike in the state for his coalition partner, incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (United) party.
"Surprisingly there is no resentment against Modi in the ground, while the popularity of Nitish Kumar has fallen dramatically," said D.M. Diwakar, a political analyst and professor at the A. N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Bihar's capital of Patna. "There could be a fractured verdict with BJP becoming the single largest party. This will lead to post-poll alliances."
What's at Stake for Modi in India's First State Vote Since Covid
The state's opposition alliance has appeared to be increasing in popularity, particularly with younger voters, by focusing on jobs. Bihar's unemployment rate has climbed to 12% — almost double that of the national average of 6.7% — since a nationwide lockdown slammed the economy.
Desperate for Jobs
When the BJP launched its election song — "This is what Bihar has" — thousands of people criticized it on Twitter as the hashtag went viral. "No jobs, millions of migrant workers and no good choices for a leader ... That is what is in Bihar," read one typical response.
To capitalize on the sentiment, the opposition bloc has put up 30-year old Tejashwi Yadav its candidate to run the state. The son of a former chief minister, Yadav has sought to woo over poorer voters and pushed job creation for those left without a livelihood by the pandemic.
"We will sanction one million government jobs in the first cabinet meeting," Yadav told cheering supporters at a rally in October. "Give us one chance."
A surprise loss for Modi's bloc would give opposition parties a playbook for defeating the ruling party in other state elections, Akhil Bery and Peter Mumford of risk consultancy Eurasia Group said in a Oct. 30 note.
A "loss would likely fuel the opposition's strategy of organizing mass protests against the federal government," they said. "This would amplify pressure on Modi to tilt even more populist in order to cement his power at the state level."
Voters Blame Anyone But Modi for India's Failure to Fight Virus
Back in 2015, Modi's party suffered a setback in the last Bihar state vote to break a string of victories in the wake of his national election win a year earlier. Taking no chances this year, Modi has already addressed a dozen rallies in the face of a surging epidemic, compared to about 30 rallies in 2015. His party has promised to provide citizens of Bihar a Covid-19 vaccine free of cost when a successful candidate emerges. And this week Modi even wrote an open letter to local voters reminding them that only his coalition could fulfill the state's aspirations.
Bihar has improved law and order, improved infrastructure such as electricity and roads, and spent more on education over the last decade. But its per capita income is still close to one third of national average, and economists say it needs to improve public expenditure and infrastructure to attract investment and create employment.
In some parts of the state, the failure to improve the economy has made voters turn on Modi. Santosh Kumar, 24, is frustrated that political parties promising the revival of defunct factories seem unable to deliver when they come to power.
"We will not be giving our vote to any politicians this time," Kumar, who voted for the BJP in the federal election last year, said from the town of Marhaura. This time, he said, he would press "none of the above" on the electronic voting machine.
Back in the flooded village of Pakahan, Mahto is among 150 families surviving on two small meals a day. Some of them had to take shelter on the primary school roof or in makeshift tents on a railway platform after muddy waters submerged their houses in mid-September.
Along with two goats, his government-subsidized house is Mahto's only asset. Like many in Bihar, Mahto is angry with the state's chief minister — he's received no assistance and his village road has not been repaired after it was washed away in the flood.
Some of his neighbors can't access much-needed food rations, while others miss out on employment support provided to rural areas. The village sits just one kilometer from four closed factories, including one that made chocolate that shut down in the late 1990s.
"After the chocolate factory closed, my father lost his job and my family has lived in poverty ever since," Mahto said. "There is no work."
With assistance by Jody Megson
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.