Page last updated at 16:11 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 17:11 UK

Crime and caste colour Bihar politics

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Bihar

Voters in Bihar

Long lines of people stand patiently, crowded into what little shade exists, waiting for their chance to vote.

"It's not about what our candidates have done in the past," says a man named Kumar. "It's about what they can do for us in the future."

Politics in Bihar is colourful, rumbustuous and full of surprises. A real bare-knuckle affair.

The good side of that sense of political passion is that election campaigns are always closely contested.

Criminal streak

The bad side is that, incredibly, one in three of all the candidates running for office here, in this phase of the general election, have criminal charges against them. They range from murder to extortion and everything in between.

Nalin Verma
People [in Bihar] are generally voting on the issue of development first
Nalin Verma, Patna correspondent for the Telegraph newspaper

If you are actually convicted of a serious offence and all appeals fail you cannot stand in an election. But in a judicial system where appeals can last for 20 years, a life of crime is often no obstacle to a life in politics.

"Over a period of time criminal guys started figuring out that politicians and industrialists were taking their help and reaping the rewards," says Anil Bairwal. "And they began to think - why can't we get into politics as well?"

Mr Bairwal runs a national campaign to make sure people know exactly who they are voting for. He says things are improving and the number of candidates with criminal connections is going down. But the link is still deeply entrenched.

"And if you look at the criminalisation of politics," he adds, "Bihar is definitely at number one."

So while national political leaders criss-cross this state by helicopter looking for votes, what does the little guy stand to gain?

There is no doubt that some people want their local "strongman" as their political representative - why send a weakling to Delhi, they ask?

'Why bother?'

But there is not much evidence that local crime lords have done a great deal for the people of Bihar. There is still extreme poverty here and extreme discrimination based on the caste system.

Armed group in Bihar
Bihar has a reputation for lawlessness and corruption

So why do people actually bother to vote? What's in it for them?

"Dignity, and a sense of self-worth," replies Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "And also a sense that whatever they can get - which could be a minimum - they can only get through this system."

Professor Yadav points out that while India has demonstrated that prosperity is not a pre-condition for democracy, the flipside is also true: democracy doesn't necessarily solve serious problems of poverty.

"Take a place like Bihar," he says.

"It shows you can have a country with a majority of people who are poor, people who vote by and large of their own free will.

"And yet poverty doesn't become the main focus of governance."

But are some things in Bihar beginning to change? For years this state had a terrible reputation as a centre of kidnapping, corruption and barely suppressed political anarchy.

It was known as the Jungle Raj - when you cast your vote, you vote for your caste.

But a new state government, allied to the opposition BJP in this national election, has begun to turn things around - focusing on the basics, such as better roads and better schools.

Caste system

Its political opponents from the old regime argue that only the rich and the privileged have seen the benefits, while the poor are still suffering. But development is suddenly the word on many people's lips.

Ninety-year-old woman votes in Bihar
Old and young have voted in large numbers

"Everything in Bihar has gone haywire, and these things are attracting the imagination of the voters," explains Nalin Verma, correspondent for the Indian newspaper, the Telegraph, in the Bihari city of Patna.

"People are generally voting on the issue of development first."

The received wisdom is that many people still vote on strict caste lines, and Mr Verma admits that things are only changing slowly.

"The caste system that has been the hallmark of Indian society cannot be obliterated by a few development projects," he concedes.

"But development has now become one of the issues which dominate the election scene."

Late at night in Patna, away from the stifling heat of the day, they are dancing in the streets in celebration of another marriage. Drummers create a riot of noise.

It's not just election season here, it's the wedding season too - a welcome reminder that real life isn't all about politics, criminal or otherwise.

Bihar clearly has huge problems to solve, but don't write it off. Like so many places in India, it feels like it is capable of springing a surprise.

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