Patna: Caste arithmetic will be on test on Sunday as electors in 55 constituencies in Bihar's flood prone fertile belt vote in the fourth round of assembly polls - with BJP chief Amit Shah's Pakistan comment muddying the electoral waters.
Millions of voters were bombarded with issues like bursting of firecrackers in Pakistan to a conspiracy to steal the job quota of the Dalits and OBCs for a religious community as campaigning drew to a close.
The stakes are perhaps the highest for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led NDA.
Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi played their cards that linked Bihar assembly polls outcome with Pakistan and raised the old job quota issue for Muslims during their rallies. It is being seen as a last ditch effort to counter RJD chief Lalu Prasad's "backward versus forward" fight in polls and Nitish Kumar's development agenda.
No doubt the stakes are also high for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar but the belligerent tone of Modi and Shah, going by their addresses in the last 48 hours, has given strength to speculations here that BJP-led NDA is not confident of repeating their performance in their strongholds.
In the last assembly polls in 2010, when the BJP was in alliance with the JD-U, it won 26 seats alone, and the NDA swept 53 of the 55 assembly seats in the last Lok Sabha polls in 2014, thanks to Modi's wave.
Amit Shah during his election rallies said firecrackers would be burst in celebration in Pakistan if the grand alliance - and not the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance - formed the next government.
Even Modi during his rallies said: "Leaders of the RJD, JD-U and the Congress are conspiring to snatch away 5 percent of SC/ST and OBC reservation and give it to a religious community (Muslim) for votes.
For the BJP, this is its strongest belt where it enjoys support of the traditional upper castes along with the Other Backward Caste-Extreme Backward Caste, and Dalits. It was evident in the last assembly and the last Lok Sabha polls.
"While it would look to maintain that dominance, it is not an easy task," a political watcher said.
As many as 14,739,120 voters are eligible to decide the fate of 776 candidates in fray in 55 of 243 assembly constituencies spread over Gopalganj, Siwan, West Champaran, East Champaran, Sheohar, Sitamarhi and Muzaffarpur districts.
The NDA candidates are heavily depending on Modi and his plank of development in the belts once notorious for lawlessness, including kidnapping, extortion and murder. Modi and Shah also used the fear factor to woo voters, warning of a return of 'Jungle Raj' if the BJP-led NDA was not voted to power.
Before Nitish Kumar came to power in November 2005, Siwan was said to be under the rule of criminal-turned-politician, former MP Mohammad Shahabuddin.
The grand alliance of JD-U, RJD and the Congress wants to make a dent with consolidation of OBCs, EBCs and Dalits along with Muslims by playing the forward versus backward fight and development of poor.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar doesn't fail to remind the electorate that the rule of law has been established and development has reached the people in shape of roads to electricity.
The two-week canvassing saw top leaders of the Grand Alliance of the ruling Janata Dal-United, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress and BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as well as six left parties, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party hitting the campaign trail.
It was marked by below-the-belt comments and occasionally personal attacks and abuses to score political points.
The run-up to the fourth-phase voting saw hectic campaigning by Modi, Amit Shah - camping in Bihar for nearly a month - Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, BSP supremo Mayawati, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad and JD-U president Sharad Yadav apart from left leaders. All of them addressed large rallies to woo voters.
The leaders also played on several issues. The main electoral planks on which all parties are seeking votes include economic development, job quotas and battle against corruption.
They also played the caste card and equations to influence voters more than any other issue.
The heavyweights in this phase include three ministers of Nitish Kumar cabinet contesting from two constituencies of Raghopur in Vaishali district and Sonepur in Saran district, JD-U's Birshen Patel from Vaishali and BJP's Renu Devi from Bettiah.
There are several candidates with criminal records in the fray.
Paramilitary forces have been deployed at all polling booths and drones would be used for the first time for surveillance, officials said.
After the fourth phase, the next and final rounds of elections will be held on November 5. Votes will be counted on November 8.
(Imran Khan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)