If the Union railway minister has to retain his smile, his amiable disposition and ensure a suitable berth for himself and party colleagues in the next government, the second phase of polling in Bihar is crucial for him.
Out of the 13 seats that go to the polls on Thursday, the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance (UPA with Lalu Prasad, Ramvilas Paswan and the Congress) had won 11 seats (before delimitation) in 2004, reducing the Janata Dal-United and the Bharatiya Janata Party to just two. This time, in a political gamble, the Rashtriya Janata Dal boss has dumped the Congress in favour of Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party in the state. The second phase of polls also includes Ramvilas Paswan's constituency, Hajipur.
In 2004, Prasad and the UPA's magical performance of 29 out of 40 seats (RJD 22, Congress 3 and LJP 4) had been possible mainly due to the coalition's performance in the districts of Paschim and Purvi Champaran, Sitamarhi, Madhubani, Darbhanga, Samastipur and Vaishali -- that go to polls today.
While the BJP got no seat in these areas in the last election, JD(U) managed two. But in one of those seats -- Muzaffarpur -- JD(U)'s Member of Parliament George Fernandes is contesting as an Independent candidate and may spoil its chances of retaining it. Districts like Paschim and Purvi Champaran, Sitamarhi, Madhubani and Darbhanga are also dubbed as the state's poverty belt and had been suffering from lack of development.
While the existing national highway from Muzaffarpur to the Nepal border via Darbhanga is currently being expanded into an 8-lane expressway, the travel along the road also shows that apart from some brick kilns, there is not even a single industrial shed or factory in this area. The population depends primarily on agriculture and Nitish Kumar's development efforts will be put to test in this region as a key poll issue.
Two important leaders of the RJD -- Union Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and deputy leader of the RJD parliamentary party Devendra Prasad Yadav -- will also face the acid test in Vaishali and Jhanjharpur, respectively. Singh, who symbolises the face of development of the RJD, will also get a verdict on his initiatives in his rural constituency.