Bihar is witnessing the final phase of the assembly election.
One thing that was palpable in the run-up to the election and during campaigning was the anti- Lalu Prasad Yadav sentiment in the state.
The desire for change -- parivartan ki hawa, as they say in the Hindi heartland -- was very much there.
Lalu's vote base among the Dalits, Muslims and other backward classes has been shaken. But the question is on whose laps will the anti-Lalu votes fall?
An IB source said, "We can only say the Rashtriya Janata Dal is unlikely to get less than 70 to 72 seats and the Bharatiya Janata Party-Janta Dal-United will emerge as the largest pre-poll alliance."
Another IB officer said if Lalu loses the precariously balanced 45 seats his chances will be over.
Only a fool or a staunch believer in god should try to predict the results in Bihar, remarked a college lecturer in Patna. Don't underestimate Lalu's killer instincts, he added.
He is quite right.
The campaigning established some facts that cannot be disputed.
It revealed that the Congress has lost the opportunity of a decade by not going the whole hog to garner anti-Lalu votes. The fear of the Bihar election's impact on the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre was so powerful that it decided to almost walk out of Bihar.
If Sonia Gandhi had campaigned relentlessly then the party could have reclaimed its lost ground in Bihar. But now it seems the party will be decimated in the state after the election. Its election management was pathetic. Of the 80 seats for which it has fielded candidates, the Congress is unlikely to win more than 10, said a Congress spokesperson in Patna.
During the campaigning the deep social divide Lalu's rule has created was also visible, although Lalu is credited with ensuring the social empowerment of the lower castes in a caste-ridden society. All those who have benefited in the last 15 years of the RJD rule have highlighted the inequitable distribution of opportunities in villages and towns.
If Lalu gets less than 80 seats one can safely conclude that it is because of the ground he has lost among the Other Backward and the Most Backward classes.
Hindi newspapers in Patna have been publishing press releases that state that the ati pichda (the most backward) class is against Lalu's rule. Many RJD candidates admit as much.
The Noniya, Turaha, Belda and Teli communities, among the most backward in the state, have announced their displeasure with the Lalu-Rabri rule.
The RJD is also dreading the prospect of a divide in the Yadav votes, as there are many rebels in fray. All those Yadavs who have been sidelined in the last 15 years are now rebelling against well-established Yadav MLAs and MPs. Any Yadav who gets a car or flashes a mobile phone is resented, said a Gopalganj resident.
Lalu's hold over the Muslim votes is also slipping. Even the RJD's most prominent Muslim leader, Taslimuddin, the Kishanganj MP and a 'tainted minister' at the Centre, is losing his grip over his constituency.
The BJP-JD-U alliance is hoping that these factors will help it. Its campaign packed a lot of energy. The BJP is looking to make some gains in the election after its defeat in the Lok Sabha election.
The combine's efforts to get Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party into the fold to strengthen the anti-Lalu alliance met with failure. However, it made a smart move by projecting Nitish Kumar as the chief ministerial candidate.
The BJP did well by not inviting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for campaigning. It thus did not give Lalu, who attacked the BJP by raking up the U C Banerjee report on the Godhra carnage during campaigning, a chance to gain political mileage.
The BJP's sincere-looking partnership with Nitish Kumar has had Muslim voters confused. It now seems the BJP's sensible politics has contained Muslim hostility towards it.
Lalu is no more the undisputed king of Bihar politics. It will be a surprise if he wins on his own. There are too many odds stacked against him.
If Lalu gets between 85 and 90 seats, he will seek Sonia Gandhi's help to persuade Paswan to support him even though he has said he will never seek the LJP leader's help. Paswan too has said that he he will not back Lalu for the 'next seven births.'
Lalu will also seek the support of the Congress, the Left parties and independents by projecting his secular credentials. He will in all probability get Congress support as Sonia Gandhi's sympathy lies with him because he never raised the issue of her foreign origin.
If the BJP-JD-U combine does not win more than 110 seats, then Paswan will be a key player after the election. Exit polls after the first two phases suggested that Paswan will likely emerge the kingmaker.
Insiders know that in case there are no clear winner, Paswan will behave more like a businessman than politician when he will sit across the table with the Congress to cut a deal in Lalu's favour.
However, if Paswan contemplates supporting the RJD, he will be haunted by the fact that every vote in his kitty is an anti-Lalu vote.
And even if he helps Lalu to form the government he is likely to oppose him or his wife as chief minister, as they have become a symbol of anarchy amongst voters.