Electioneering and Enlightenment: A Field Report from Bihar

Patna billboards 1

Bihar fields

Polling for the first phase of the Bihar elections began Monday. Voters in 49 of Bihar’s 243 constituencies went to their polling stations to elect their representatives to the Vidhan Sabha.

On the same day, I returned from a trip to Patna to observe training for the CSDS post-poll survey. The trip was a nice mix of research, political chatter, and sightseeing. After observing the training of field investigators and sightseeing a little in Patna on Friday, we made our way south to Bodh Gaya to visit the Mahabodhi Temple and the bodhi tree under which Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, found enlightenment. All along the way, we stopped to talk with Biharis about how they were planning to vote and their expectations for the elections–villagers leisurely chatting, cowherds resting by the road, waiters at restaurants, security guards at tourist sites, chaiwallahs, and election workers from three different parties.

Day 1 (October 8): Delhi to Patna

Not only was this my first train ride in India, it was an overnight ride, so I was quite excited for it. With Nitin, Rahul, and Shreyas, I arrived at the station about 45 minutes earlier. Nitin, Shreyas, and I took our seats in a 3rd class AC coach. In this class of coaches, there are a series of connected chambers, with each chamber containing two benches / beds facing each other. In between each of these benches / beds is another set of fold-out beds, and on the other side of the chamber are two more benches and beds. I excitedly devoured the snacks they gave us at the beginning of the ride.

We got into quite a conversation with a 77-year-old man, Mr. Pathak, who was seated to my immediate right. He was a lawyer who still regularly practiced law in the high courts of both Patna and Delhi. Mr. Pathak had been eavesdropping on our conversation, and told me that I spoke the King’s English, not English like an American, which he said was faster and contained more slang. I did not quite agree that I spoke the King’s English, but thanked him for the compliment.

As the sun set and the fields of Uttar Pradesh dimmed, our dinner came out. Chicken, rice, dal, and yoghurt. “Do you like the dinner?” Mr. Pathak asked. “Oh yes, it’s quite good,” I said with a spoonful of dal on its way to my mouth. “Do you?” I asked. “No,” he said. “I’ve never much cared for the food on these trains.”

He started listening to the rhythmic chanting of a poem through his phone. A verse was sung, then a chime was heard, and then another verse was sung. Mr. Pathak asked me if I knew what he was listening to. “Is it the Quran?” I guessed. He laughed. He was listening to the original Sanskrit of the Bhagavad Gita. Fluent in Sanskrit, he shared with me his favorite expression from the Gita, which essentially said that it is the thirst for knowledge which drives people to learn. Quite right.

Mr. Pathak then helped me to pull out the middle bed while Nitin watched a Bollywood action flick, Race 2, on the highest bed. Before retiring for the night, I asked him if he would pose for a picture with me and Nitin. He obliged us, then asked if he could take a selfie with me, which I of course allowed. The lights were turned off in the car as I squirmed my way onto the middle bed.

Rajdhani Express


Day 2 (October 9): Patna

The train pulled in before 6 AM. Groggily pulling ourselves from the train, Nitin, Shreyas, and I met up with Rahul on the platform and walked outside the station to be immediately greeted by a gigantic poster for the BJP dominated by the faces of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Bihar ke vikas ke liye, Bedliye sarkar, bedliye Bihar, it read. “For Bihar’s development, change the government, change Bihar.”

Patna billboards 2

We walked our way over to the Samrat International hotel. Along the walk more Modis and Shahs stared down at us from above. The sunglasses-clad face of Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar and leader of the grand alliance, appeared on billboards along a roundabout.

Patna billboards 1

Patna billboards 3

We checked into the hotel, and rested for a few hours since the training exercise was that very morning. Around 10:30, someone from the Lokniti network in Patna came by the hotel to pick us up, and we followed him across the street, around a bend, into a building, and up some stairs to a classroom crammed with about sixty fresh-faced and eager-looking students sitting at desks. They stood immediately as we entered the room. Rakesh Ranjan, the state coordinator for Lokniti in Bihar, introduced the four of us, and Rahul and I took seats near the back of the classroom as Nitin and Shreyas prepared their Powerpoint presentation.

Nitin and Shreyas opened by asking every student to introduce him or herself. Each student rose, many with trepidation, to share their name, college, and major. Nitin and Shreyas then thanked them all before launching into the training. They talked about the history of CSDS and survey research in India. Shreyas lifted a copy of The Indian Express‘ reporting of the CSDS Bihar pre-poll to show how the survey research carried out by these students would be discussed among the Indian public and inform national debates. Nitin pointed to previous CSDS polls’ track records to bolster their approach to measuring public opinion.

Training 1

Training 4

Training 3

Training 2

The training covered the theoretical basis of surveys, the importance of asking carefully crafted questions, and a detailed explanation of the survey’s sampling procedures, with an emphasis placed on the importance of probability-based sampling. It was all designed to show the interviewers that they were part of a collective effort to understand not just how the Bihari electorate was voting, but why they were voting in that way. The interviewers were being presented with an opportunity to inform Indian society about itself, and were expected to take this responsibility seriously.

The training then shifted to the questionnaire. For each question, one student was asked to stand and play the role of interviewer, while another stood and played the role of respondent. In this way each question was read and discussed, so Nitin and Shreyas could add comments or advice and interviewers could seek clarification for any questions they had about the questionnaire.

Sample ballot

A sample ballot from the survey: Respondents are asked to recast their vote as they did on Election Day

The entire exercise took several hours, with a lunch break near the middle. The most memorable moment of the training happened when the interviewers were reading question 23, “Which caste do you not like at all?” Shreyas told the student playing respondent that he did not have to answer the question. But he shared his opinion regardless. “Bhumihars!” he said. There was an awkward silence filled by giggles and muttering from the students. Then the questionnaire review resumed.

Once the training was done, we returned to the hotel to relax for a bit before going around Patna. We took an auto to Krishna ghat along the Ganges. On the way to the ghat, we asked our auto driver about the election. He said he would be supporting Nitish Kumar and the Grand Alliance candidate in his constituency, but he sensed that the NDA was winning. It was the closest election in Bihar that he could remember, he told us.

Descending from the auto, we walked to the ghat to see the smooth waters of the Ganges quietly pass us by. In the distance to our right were twinkling lights, the headlights of cars driving across the Mahatma Gandhi Bridge. Across the river, it was pitch black.

On the auto ride back to the hotel, we asked our driver what he thought about the election. He thought the NDA would win, and he said this was a shame because Nitish Kumar had greatly developed the state. “Bihar’s misfortune would be if these people came,” he said as we exited the auto.

Day 3 (October 10): Patna to Bodh Gaya

We were up early the next day to start our drive to Bodh Gaya, with the knowledge that we would be stopping at sightseeing destinations and chatting with people along the way.

Bihar is a mostly agricultural state. 88% of the population lives in rural areas, according to the 2011 census. The drive from Patna to Bodh Gaya was filled with pastoral scenery, interrupted every so often by small villages and towns where farmers gathered to sell their crops.

Bihar fields

About 45 minutes outside Patna, we stopped at a roadside dhaba to have paranthas, dal, and rice for breakfast. Next to the dhaba, we approached some older men who were weighing and bundling cucumbers for storage. These men were Yadavs, and they were backing the BJP. They said that since the BJP candidate in their consitutency was a Yadav, they did not feel compelled to back Lalu or the Grand Alliance. They also thought the NDA would win. We thanked them and continued along our way.

About an hour later, we saw some older men sitting in a circle as we passed through a village in Nalanda distirct. We stopped the car and sat down next to them. An older man in the middle spoke while the rest were silent. He said that both candidates in their districts were Koeri. They did not like Nitish; it irritated them that Nitish had divided the dalits by categorizing some as mahadalits (all dalits excluding Paswans were categorized as mahadalits to be targeted for special welfare programs). When Nitin asked them to raise their hands if they were supporting the NDA, a man said that this hand-raising exercise was like a rally for Ram Vilas Paswan, the leader of the Lok Janshakti Party. Based on these remarks, we though it likely that they were Paswans who supported the LJP.


Our next stop was Nalanda, where we toured the Gupta-era Buddhist university that dates back to the 5th century. The university was remarkably well-preserved; some restoration work had apparently been done. It is said that when the Mamluk army of Bakhtiyar Khilji ransacked the university in the 13th century, so tremendous was the library that it took six months for all its manuscripts to burn.



At Nalanda, we spoke with a security guard about the election. He said that the NDA was winning, and that Modi was doing good work in Delhi while Nitish had done good work as chief minister. He added that it was a good thing to have a different party governing at the state level than the national level. We spoke to a second security guard who also said the NDA was winning, but would not reveal his vote intention.

Our next stop was Rajgir to see the Vishwa Shanta Stupa, the peace pagoda. While we waited for a chairlift to take us up a hill to the stupa, we spoke to a man who ran a nearby shop. He was a Yadav backing the JD(U) candidate in his constituency, which was reserved for candidates from the Scheduled Castes and  almost certain to be won by the NDA candidate. He said that Lalu’s “Hindus eat beef too” remark regarding the Dadri killing had likely hurt Lalu with his base, Yadav voters. He estimated that it could cost Lalu 10% of Yadav voters. But he was quite adamant that he would be supporting the JD(U) candidate.

We also saw gray langurs sitting in a garden and around benches, ostensibly to keep smaller monkeys (bandars) away. One such langur grabbed a bag of Lay’s American Sour Creme and Onion chips from an unlucky shopkeeper before running into the parking lot to devour them. The furious shopkeeper pelted rocks at the simian shoplifter from afar, but his missiles missed their target, and the langur leapt into the trees to more safely enjoy his bounty.


20151010_134017 (1)

The chairlift ride up the hill was quite rickety. It halted on the way up, and for 20 anxious seconds, I wondered if we had made a terrible mistake before it started moving again. But the ride was also immensely enjoyable. Within seconds after being hoisted up by the chair, a serene quiet surrounded me as I looked down on the forest below me and the countryside surrounding me. At the top, we walked around the stupa, which was built near the site where the Buddha supposedly delivered the Lotus Sutra to his disciples.





After taking the chairlift back down, we spoke to some men in the parking lot about the election. One man who was a Yadav said that he was supporting Modi. He said that if Lalu were returned to power, he would have to use his pistol again for protection. He was angry about Lalu’s “Hindus eat beef too” remark, saying, “Out of ten Hindus, maybe four eat beef. How can he then say that Hindus eat beef when a majority don’t?” Another man joined our conversation to disagree with him, saying that no Hindu eats beef.

On the way to dinner at another roadside dhaba, we asked our driver who he was supporting. He supported the BJP, and because the NDA candidate in his constitutency (Kurtha) was from the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, he was voting for the RLSP candidate. He said that everyone in his village was supporting the RLSP. I asked Nitin why Yadavs would be so offended by Lalu’s remark about beef. Nitin explained that the Yadavs believe they are descended from Lord Krishna, who famously protected cows.

After a delicious dinner at the dhaba, we sat down next to some young men who were chatting at a nearby table. They were supporting Congress because the local candidate for the constituency was much stronger than his opponent. They said that they thought the BJP would win in Bihar.

We pulled into Bodh Gaya after dark, passing by vehicles promoting candidates from the Shiv Sena and the Communist Party of India along the way. After a long and ultimately successful journey to find a Thai restaurant, Siam Thai, we retired to our hotel and went to bed early.

Day 4 (October 11): Bodh Gaya to Patna 

Shreyas and I awoke early and wandered around Bodh Gaya in the morning. After going to a Western-style coffee house and eating an almond muffin that had the consistency of a rock, we sat down with the chaiwallah (tea shop owner) on the corner.

An older man, the chaiwallah traditionally supported the BJP but this time would be voting for the RJD. He was a Rajput, which is a forward caste, and said that both candidates in the Bodh Gaya constituency, which is reserved for candidates from scheduled castes, were Paswans. He was voting for the RJD because their candidate was a local figure; he made it clear that he did not like Lalu. We asked the chaiwallah’s son about the election, and he said he would be voting as his father did. The chaiwallah’s son spoke a little French, so he and I had a simple conversation with one another (“Comment vous appellez-vous?” “Je m’appelle Sam.”). Across from the stand was an SUV owned by the Samajwadi Party.


We then met up with Nitin and Rahul to walk over to the Mahabodhi Temple. First built by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, its current structure is dated to the fifth century AD. This temple is at the spot along the Phalgu River where Siddhartha Gautama sat down beneath a tree and, after three days and nights of meditation, was enlightened, thus becoming the Buddha. The temple complex is very calm and a quiet peace pervades the air. Visitors from Cambodia, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and other lands walk the grounds, treading lightly around the many monks who are meditating and tourist groups listening to sermons. The Bodhi tree itself is behind the temple. This is not the original Mahabodhi tree–it is said that Ashoka sent his daughter with a sapling of the tree to Sri Lanka, where it was planted, and that a sapling of this tree was sent brought back to Bodh Gaya. Pilgrims touch the space around the tree and meditate beneath.

Mahabodhi temple

Under the Mahabodhi tree

After finishing our visit to the temple, we went to an American-style cafe, Be Happy Cafe, for some breakfast. The meal of eggs, porridge, and coffee did, in fact, make us happy. We talked to a waiter at the restaurant, who echoed a lot of what the chaiwallah had said earlier. He said the BJP candidate for the area was bad, while the RJD candidate was good. He liked Nitish Kumar and wanted him to remain as chief minister. But at the same time, he expressed certainty that the NDA would win the election.

Outside Gaya, we stopped along the road to see the Vishnupad Mandir, a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The Phalgu River was almost entirely dried up, so we tried walking across the riverbed to get to the temple, but kept walking into water that remained. Hot, tired, and not in the mood to wade through the Phalgu, we returned to the car, passing by Hindu shrines along the way.



Forty-five minutes later, we pulled over along the roadside again to talk to a group of election workers. They were from the Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayawati (whose face adorns the banner of this blog). It was evident that the campaign workers were Muslim, based on their use of the phrase “inshallah.” Their candidate, Sheikh Ayuub, was also Muslim, which was interesting since the BSP is a dalit party. They said that this election was about vikas, development, and that the grand alliance had a 60% chance of winning Bihar while the NDA had a 40% chance. They said that the RJD candidate for their consituency, Belaganj, had been a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) for 25 years and had done nothing for them. They liked Nitish, but said that their main concern was beating the NDA.


A little farther down the road, we encountered party workers from Hindustan Awam Morcha (Secular), the mahadalit party aligned with the BJP. Their candidate, Sharim Ali, was also a Muslim. One of the party workers pointed to the saffron tika on his forehead to show that he was Hindu. “This election is about development,” he said. “How can they say that the BJP is a communal party when we BJP supporters are voting for a Muslim candidate?” After staying a little too long and asking perhaps too many questions, one of the HAM party workers asked Rahul if I were an American agent. We thanked them for their time and got back into our car.



On our way through Belaganj, our car was stopped and searched by police officers. They were looking for alcohol or large chunks of cash which would be used to bribe voters, or for unauthorized campaign materials.

We started driving towards Barabar Caves, India’s oldest rock-cut caves that date back to the Mauryan empire. Along the way, we stopped to ask directions from cowherds sitting by the road. They looked to be sixty or older. It seems that they were supporting the RJD, since one of the old men was holding an RJD campaign piece in his hand. When Rahul asked why someone would vote for an MLA who had served 25 years but accomplished nothing, one of the slightly younger men said that their MLA had in fact done well in extending electricity to their area. “The one who promises better irrigation facilities will win our vote,” another cowherd said. “If none do that, we will not vote.” We suspected that they were Yadavs, since they were cowherds who appeared to be backing the RJD.



After our visit to the Barabar caves, we asked our guide about the constituency. We were no longer in Belaganj constitutency, which was in Gaya district, but in Makhdumpur constituency, in Jehanabad district. This constituency was that of Jitan Ram Manjhi, who leads the HAM. Two young men we encountered outside the entrance to the caves said they were “hardcore RJD supporters.” They expected the RJD to win in Belaganj and said it would “give [Manjhi] a fight” in Makhdumpur. As we stepped back into the car, a van from the Samras Samaj Party, one of the smaller parties in the Third Front, drove by blaring messages from their candidate.

We drove the next few hours without stopping; we needed to arrive at Patna in time for our train at 7. At 4, we stopped to eat a late lunch of liti chana and lai mithai. Immediately to the left of our dhaba was an RJD campaign office decorated with banners for their candidate. We walked inside to chat with the party workers, who were happy to have us and immediately started serving tea.

The RJD campaign workers were confident that the grand alliance would win in Bihar; in fact, they expected the grand alliance to pull at least 150 seats. They said that Lalu’s quote about beef was a non-issue, and that they had no concerns that this election cycle JD(U) voters would vote for RJD candidates and RJD voters would vote for JD(U) candidates. They did not respond to further questions about the difficult of putting the JD(U)-RJD coalition together in practice. Noticeably, their streamers and campaign materials featured Lalu and Nitish together. The JD(U) campaign materials we had seen (and other grand alliance campaign billboards) featured only Nitish.



From the RJD campaign office, it was a straight shot to Patna. Billboards with mammoth profiles of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, and Nitish Kumar greeted us once again. We drove by a march of BJP supporters and a Congress office before pulling into Patna station with plenty of time to spare before our train’s departure.

Below are the main takeaways from our travels around Bihar and conversations with voters. Of course, this was not a scientific survey. We only travelled around the Magadh region of Bihar and spoke only to men (note how none of the quotes and images in this post include women) who were willing to share their impressions. But these were the impressions with which we were left.

  • People think the NDA is going to win.
    • With the exceptions of the BSP and RJD party workers, every person we talked to had a sense that the wind was blowing in the BJP’s favor. This included supporters of the Grand Alliance, some of which expressed dismay that Nitish would not be rewarded for his strong record on development.
  • Nitish is almost universally popular, while Lalu is widely disliked.
    • No one we talked to had anything bad to say about Nitish Kumar. His record on development was often mentioned as an electoral asset, even by those backing parties that are not in the Grand Alliance. At the same time, no one had anything nice to say about Lalu. Even some RJD supporters seemed shy about admitting that they were backing Lalu’s party.
  • The NDA are smart at playing caste politics.
    • The BJP clearly put a lot of thought into their selection of candidates. They selected Yadav candidates to contest opposing Yadav candidates, Paswan candidates to contest opposing Paswan candidates, etc. This does appear to make a difference in at least some constituencies. The Yadav voters we spoke to outside Patna felt that because both the RJD and BJP candidates contesting in their constituency, they were not obligated to back the RJD.
  • Beef politics may matter.
    • Lalu’s support among Yadavs could be less solid than in previous elections. Several Yadav voters we talked to mentioned Lalu’s “Hindus eat beef too” remark as making them less likely to support the Grand Alliance candidate in their constituency. Insofar as cow slaughter is an issue in these elections, it is likely to benefit the NDA.

These findings are fairly in sync with the results of the CSDS pre-poll that was commissioned by the Indian Express. This poll was fielded in the final week of September, before the Dadri killing and ensuing controversy about laws against cow slaughter.


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