Seven Lok Sabha constituencies of Bihar, known to be backward pockets with high rates of poverty and illiteracy, will go to the polls on April 30. The seats are crucial for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar as his so-called development plank will be put to test while the caste factor may also come into play. Over 10 million voters will elect their representatives in Madhepura, Jhanjharpur, Madhubani, Darbhanga, Samastipur, Begusarai and Khagaria.
Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal-United had won five of the seven seats while its then ally Bharatiya Janata Party had won two.
Both parties are contesting the polls without each other for the first time since 1996, after the JD-U ended its 17-year alliance with the BJP last year.
Probably sensing the difficult challenge, Nitish Kumar has made Madhepura his base for campaigning. "Nitish Kumar has been working overtime by camping in Madhepura for more than a week to ensure the victory of party candidates, including party president Sharad Yadav, who is seeking re-election," a JD-U leader told IANS.
The BJP is banking heavily on its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, and party leaders hope to win more seats than in 2009.
Leaders of the Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal combine are also upbeat. "Even if we win at least one or two seats, it will be a big gain for us," RJD leader Chandeshwar Prasad Singh told IANS.
Prominent leaders in the fray are Sharad Yadav, Hukum Deo Narain Yadav, Ali Ashraf Fatmi, former cricketer Kirti Azad, Pappu Yadav, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Tiliya Devi, NRI doctor Prabhat Ranjan Das and Abdul Bari Siddiqui.
The BJP is confident of support from the upper castes - Brahmins, Bhumihar, Rajputs - and also hopes to garner support of backward castes and Dalits, thanks to its alliance with the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) of Ram Vilas Paswan and the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) of Upendra Kushwaha. Kirti Azad, BJP candidate and sitting MP from Darbhanga, is a Brahmin and is eyeing the support from the upper castes, while another BJP candidate and sitting MP from Madhubani, Hukum Deo Narain Yadav hopes to get his castemen - Yadavs - to vote for him. BJP candidate Bhola Prasad Singh from Begusarai is also depending on his upper caste Bhumihar voters, who are supporters of Modi.
In Madhepura, Pappu Yadav - known for his criminal background - is contesting against Sharad Yadav, the incumbent member and a former union minister. "In Madhepura, two formidable Yadav candidates are fighting and their caste votes will get divided. The JD-U is hopeful of support from the Kurmis, mahadalits, Muslims, Rajputs and other upper castes, while Pappu is also eyeing the backward castes and Muslims," said political activist Ranjiv.