The first phase of polling is considered crucial for both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad

A series of events and developments in the past six months or so has left Bihar in the grip of a mercurial political temperament ahead of the six-phase Assembly elections that begin on Thursday.

The situation is fluid, to say the least, but somehow or the other the first phase of polling in 47 constituencies is considered crucial for both Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) and his arch rival and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad, who is fighting the election with the Lok Jan Shakti Party of Ram Vilas Paswan. This round is expected to throw light on the mind of Muslim voters.

Mr. Prasad had fared badly in these constituencies in the October 2005 Assembly election, especially in the Yadav-dominated seats. Mr. Kumar is desperate to explain his proclivity towards the BJP to wean the Muslims — who crowd the voter list in most of these constituencies — away from Mr. Prasad.

Till a few months ago, all seemed rosy for Mr. Kumar, and very few doubted his return to power. But things have changed all of a sudden, either because of his own follies or because of events over which he had no control, like the Allahabad High Court's ruling on the Ayodhya title suits.

Mr. Kumar's statements denying the possibility of a hung Assembly has betrayed his sense of political insecurity and triggered speculation that the State is heading towards a split verdict unlike in October 2005 when the NDA swept the polls, winning 143 seats in the 243-member Assembly.

He invited problems with the release of the Bandhopadhyay Commission's report on land reforms. It favoured transfer of land titles to sharecroppers. The landed gentry, especially the upper castes, were up in arms; several of his close associates came out against him, feeling uneasy for one reason or the other.

Mr. Kumar's problems compounded when his Gujarat counterpart, Narendra Modi, visited Bihar a few months ago. Mr. Kumar's aggressive posture was seen as an “exhibition of arrogance,” which did not fit in with the upper-caste and middle-class sentiments.

His image took yet another beating when the Patna High Court ordered a CBI probe into the unaccounted withdrawal of funds from the treasury.

Mr. Kumar has sought to placate the upper castes by promising to set up a commission to provide them with reservation.

It is undeniable that most people, including the minorities, appreciate Mr. Kumar's contribution to improving law and order and building roads, but one Muslim organisation or the other has been issuing statements backing the RJD-LJP combine. The latest is the All-India Organisation of Imams of Mosques. At a meeting here on Sunday, it appealed to the electorate in general and the Muslims in particular to support the RJD-LJP combine.

A round of campaigning by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi has sought to put the Chief Minister on the back foot on the plank of development, the one issue on which he is banking in this electoral battle, reminiscent of the 2005 and 1995 elections.

In 1995, despite Mr. Kumar walking out on him, Mr. Prasad scraped through with a wafer-thin margin. But five years ago, Mr. Prasad found himself pitted against many odds. This time round, Mr. Kumar is facing the tune with none to lend him a helping hand. The question is whether he will secure a majority.