After almost a week of criss crossing Bihar, the big question remains: who is winning the battle for one of the country's most politically significant states? So, here are my ten big takeaways:
A) There is no visible anti incumbency against Nitish Kumar: almost everyone you speak to has only kind words for the chief minister who is seen as hard working and committed to development (even more than Sadak, bijli is being seen as his big achievement this time). Yes, there are many, especially in urban areas, who say they would have preferred Nitish minus Lalu, and who see his decision to ally with his once sworn enemy as the worst form of political 'opportunism' but there is also a strong belief across the caste and rural-urban divide that he is the best chief minister Bihar has had. In a sense, Nitish 'babu' has become a bit like the Jyotibabu (Basu) of Bihar: a man who is seen to symbolise political 'decency' in an unwholesome political environment.
B) Narendra Modi is the most popular national leader in Bihar by some distance. 'Modi for PM, Nitish for CM' resonates in many places. Mr Modi's appeal is strongest among the young for whom he represents the future. He is seen as a strong leader with energy and communication skills, qualities that appeal to a younger Bihar. His popularity is also much higher than that of his party, and the BJP's local leadership is not seen in such favourable terms. No one is also quite sure why party president Amit Shah is sharing hoarding space with the prime minister ('yeh Gujarat Ka election nahi hai', my driver tells me!). And whereas in 2014, Mr Modi could walk on water, some of the magic is wearing off now that he has been in power for 18 months (the rising price of dal, for example, couldn't have come at a worse time for the BJP).
C) Lalu Prasad is a leader in decline. However, if he still wins this Bihar battle, he will have to send a thank you card to Mohan Bhagwat. The RSS chief's remarks on reservation have given oxygen to Lalu's fading career. He is still the number one Yadav leader and carries enormous goodwill among the Muslims. But in urban pockets (and even in parts of rural Bihar), Lalu Raj is looked upon as a dark period for Bihar.
D) The Congress barely gets a mention in Bihar: the once dominant party is now almost invisible. Reduced to a B team of the Lalu-Nitish combine, the Congress and Rahul Gandhi just don't matter in the matrix of Bihar politics. If allying with Kanshi Ram finished the Congress in UP in the mid 1990s, 2015 has pushed the Congress into further irrelevance in Bihar. Maybe, the party has no option now but to accept its marginal status in the Hindi heartland.
E) The BJP's allies, Ram Vilas Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha, are seen as a noose around the BJP's neck. Both are widely accused (without evidence yet) of 'selling' their tickets to the highest bidder, and often to candidates who have little chance of winning. Jitan Ram Manjhi is seen in slightly more favourable terms, but by giving more than 80 seats to its allies, the BJP may end up paying a heavy price.
F) We have heard of caste and community vote banks in Bihar, but now we are seeing the gradual emergence of a unique women's vote bank in Bihar. The cycle for girls has become a symbol of women's empowerment in rural Bihar and an improved law and order situation has made women feel more secure. Women could be the silent voters of Bihar this time: in the first three rounds, women voting percentage has been higher than men. If the youth are Modi's best hope, women could be Nitish's trump card.
G) Caste identities remain durable across Bihar. The forward-backward polarisation is real: answers to a political question are often determined by caste loyalties. And yet, even these identities are fraying along the edges with every social group competing for a shrinking cake (the EBCs or extremely backward castes are now the new claimants to the power pyramid). A local candidate with a strong development record is preferred in some places to a caste leader. Caste plus development is the magic mantra.
H) 'Development' in Bihar carries a very different connotation to what it might in other states. In an enormously fertile land, the grinding poverty can numb you: Bihar has been left behind on most social and economic parameters. The sensex won't determine a development index for Bihar, nor will growth rate figures, or even industrialisation. Sadak, Suraksha, Shiksha is the three pronged development 'weapon' for a majority in rural Bihar. Add Bijli and paani and it becomes the perfect five!
I) There is a Muslim vote bank in Bihar, but little sign of a Hindu-Muslim divide on the ground. In villages, there is a reassuring Hindu-Muslim compact: 'we celebrate Durga Puja, they celebrate our Muharram' and vice versa is often heard amongst local community leaders. Issues like the beef ban which resonate in TV studios have had little impact in the minds of people. Yes, there have been attempts to stir communal flare-ups, but most Biharis take pride in their shared heritage.
J) Bihar's best resources are its people. Many Biharis remain trapped in a cycle of poverty and deprivation but their spirit is unflinching as is their political consciousness. Hard working and resolute, being Bihari is a matter of pride for the majority: it's a badge of identity through good times and bad. Even the Bihari who leaves his state in search of better opportunities hasn't lost his rootedness.
So, who is winning the battle for Bihar? I won't predict (although am sorely tempted) but will say this: the people of Bihar will deliver a clearer verdict than many might be expecting. My only hope is that whoever wins, the people of Bihar must not lose. Jai Bihar!