Patna: The fourth and penultimate phase of the Bihar assembly polls, the biggest popularity test in the country since the February elections in Delhi that the BJP lost, ended on Sunday with around 58 percent of the 14 million electorate in the state's flood-prone fertile belt casting their ballot, officials said.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Grand Alliance led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar claimed they had the upper hand as polling ended in 55 of the total 243 constituencies in seven districts.
Additional Chief Electoral Officer R. Lakshmanan said the exercise passed off peacefully, including in Maoist strongholds.
About 55.32 percent voting took place till 4 p.m. -- and 58 percent when it got over an hour later.
The heavyweights in this phase included three ministers of the 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 were many candidates with criminal records.
Barring minor clashes, polling was peaceful, police said.
Over two dozen "anti-social elements" were arrested for violating the model code of conduct and threatening election officials.
Even as voting was on, Modi addressed election rallies in constituencies that will see polling on November 5 -- three days before the results will be known -- and urged the people to vote for the BJP-led four-party alliance.
BJP leaders claimed that the large voter turnout showed their party was headed for a victory. The same claim was also made by leaders of Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal-United.
Polling in 12 of the constituencies where Maoists are active ended early.
Voters queued up at many polling stations even before they opened. As the day progressed, the pace of polling picked up.
At some places, the electronic voting machines malfunctioned -- but they were quickly restored.
There was no major incident of violence. But police used force when political activists clashed outside a polling booth in Sheohar district.
As many as 776 candidates were in the fray on Sunday in the districts of Gopalganj, Siwan, West Champaran, East Champaran, Sheohar, Sitamarhi and Muzaffarpur.
The main contest was between the BJP and its allies the LJP, HAM and RLSP on the one hand, and the JD-U, the RJD and the Congress on the other.
The Bihar election is the most significant political battle after the BJP lost the Delhi assembly election to the Aam Aadmi Party in February.
Both Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have been on an aggressive drive in a bid to woo voters in Bihar -- only to be countered by Nitish Kumar and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief and former chief minister Lalu Prasad, who said again on Sunday that the BJP would face defeat in the state.
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.
The next and final round of elections will be held on November 5. Votes will be counted on November 8.
The run-up to the fourth phase 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 Front leaders. All of them addressed large rallies to woo voters.
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.
Canvassing was marked by several below-the-belt comments and occasionally personal attacks and abuses to score political points.
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.
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