Polls amidst pandemic

The Bihar Assembly election is the first large-scale democratic exercise, involving 7.29 crore voters, taking place in India since the nationwide lockdown due to Covid-19, reports Amit Agnihotri

The battle of ballot in Bihar has aroused huge public interest across the country and the suspense over who will get to rule the backward state for the next five years will end on November 10 when results for the 243 Bihar Assembly seats are out.

The assembly elections, being held in three phases on October 28, Nov 3 and Nov 7, are interesting as this is the first large-scale democratic exercise involving 7.29 crore registered voters taking place in India since the nationwide lockdown was announced in March to curb the spread of Covid-19.

As the pandemic continues unabated, the Election Commission of India has come out with detailed guidelines on how campaigning and casting of votes should be carried out so that the public rallies do not become super-spreading events of the Coronavirus.

In a way, the polls have generated hope among the state’s over 10 crore population including the 7.29 cr voters that the new dispensation in Patna will fast track and broadbase development which has been slower in Bihar as compared to other states.

Unfortunately, while politicians of all hues have been promising the moon to the voters over the past decades, the state continues to suffer from lack of adequate education and health care facilities, low incomes, low industrial growth and poverty and illiteracy levels above 50 percent. Lack of opportunity at home has forced lakhs of residents, both skilled and unskilled, since decades to migrate out of Bihar in search of better avenues.

Politically, the elections are a battle of survival for both Janata Dal-United leader and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Leader of the Opposition Tejashwi Yadav, who belongs to the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Nitish Kumar has held the key post of chief minister for the past three terms and is leaving no stones unturned to beat the huge anti-incumbency. The JD-U is part of the NDA which comprises the BJP, Hindustani Awam Morcha of Jitan Ram Manjhi and Vikassheel Insaan Party of Bollywood set designer-turned-politician Mukesh Sahani.

The BJP is contesting 110 seats and has given 11 seats from its quota to the VIP. The JD-U is contesting 115 seats and has given seven from its quota to the HAM. The NDA is pitted against the Grand Alliance, a coalition of RJD, Congress and the Left parties. The Congress is contesting on 70 seats, the RJD on 144 seats and the Left parties on 29 seats.

There is also a third front sort of formation including Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM and three other smaller parties with Kushwaha as their chief ministerial nominee. Kushwaha is a former NDA partner who parted ways with the BJP in 2018.

An interesting player in this election is the Lok Janshakti Party, which is a BJP ally at the centre but decided to break from the NDA to fight the assembly polls alone. LJP leader Chirag Paswan does not see eye to eye with Nitish Kumar and is hoping that his anti-JD-U stand and a possible sympathy vote in the wake of party founder Ram Vilas Paswan’s passing away recently may come to his rescue.

Chirag, who is leading the LJP campaign, has vowed to defeat Nitish Kumar and proclaims that PM Modi resides in his heart just like Lord Ram resides in the heart of Lord Hanuman. The remarks have irked the BJP leaders who have downplayed Chirag as “vote katua”, someone who eats into your vote bank. Chirag has been claiming that Nitish Kumar will not return as chief minister and that there would be a BJP-LJP government in the state. He has even put up candidates against JD-U nominees in many places.

The BJP asserts that Nitish will be the chief minister even if the JD-U tally goes down but there appears to be some haze around the bonding the two parties have had for a long. This has led to speculation in the political circles that the LJP may join the Grand Alliance if there is an opportunity.

Late Ram Vilas Paswan, who had the distinction of serving as a cabinet minister in the BJP-led as well as the Congress-led coalition governments at the centre, was known to be a political weathercock and it is natural that Chirag would step into his shoes.

This is the reason why the cabinet berth vacated by Ram Vilas passing away has been kept vacant and a call on whether the LJP should remain an NDA partner or not, would be taken after the Bihar poll results. Interestingly, two Maharashtra-based parties, the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party have also thrown their hat in the ring though they are not significant players in Bihar.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and his son Aaditya Thackeray, a minister, are the star campaigners for the Shiv Sena and plan to hold virtual rallies on the 50 seats the party is contesting. Sena leaders Sanjay Raut and Priyanka Chaturvedi may also campaign.

NCP chief Sharad Pawar, his daughter Supriya Sule, a Lok Sabha member from Baramati in Maharashtra and senior leader Praful Patel are among those who will campaign for the 150-odd party candidates in Bihar. If the NDA wins, the future of the RJD and the Congress appears to be bleak as sustaining their organizations till 2025 would be a big challenge for both Tejashwi and Rahul. However, if the Grand Alliance emerges victorious, it may encourage the constituents to forge a similar front to counter the BJP at the centre and in West Bengal which will have assembly polls in 2021.

For the poll watchers, the 2020 Bihar elections are also expected to give us a hint how the pent up anger of the large number of workers who were forced to migrate under harsh conditions from the big cities to their native villages due to the sudden lockdown in March would respond to the pro-poor claims made by the Nitish Kumar government, which has come under fire from the Opposition over the issue.

In April, the country watched in anguish as lakhs of migrants who had lost their jobs and homes walked on foot for hundreds of kilometers to reach their native villages in Bihar as an ill-prepared government grappled to deal with the crisis.

The opposition hopes to tap into that anger among the migrants and has been constantly raking up the issue during the poll campaign. As campaigning moved into high gear ahead of the first phase of polling on October 28, PM Modi along with CM Nitish Kumar and Rahul Gandhi along with Tejashwi Yadav addressed rallies in the state on October 23. “He says he bows before labourers but when they really need him, he does nothing. You kept walking, thirsty and hungry, for thousands of kilometres but Modi-ji did not give you trains. The (government) said you die, I don’t care,” Rahul said while slamming the PM at a rally in Nawada.

“Bihar will give a fitting reply to Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi. Modiji will get the correct answer,” he said. Tejashwi blamed the CM for ignoring the migrants. “Nitish Kumar stayed inside the Chief Minister’s house for 144 days. But now he is out of his house. Why? Then too Coronavirus was there and it is here now also. But he wants your vote, so he has to step out,” Yadav remarked.

However, PM Modi backed his ally from the Opposition attack saying the CM managed the pandemic well. “If Bihar had not acted fast, the pandemic would have killed many, many more. It would have been unimaginable mayhem. But today Bihar, having battled Covid, is now celebrating the festival of democracy,” Modi said while addressing a joint rally in Sasaram.

State and national polls

Interestingly, in the previous 2015 Assembly polls, Nitish Kumar dropped his age old rivalry with Lalu Prasad and joined the RJD-JD-U-Congress alliance which had an overwhelming support from other backward classes (OBCs), economically backward classes (EBCs), Dalits and Muslims to defeat the BJP-led NDA by winning 178 out of 243 seats. The BJP won 53 seats, LJP 2, HAM 1 and RLSP 2.

RJD agreed to make Nitish Kumar the chief minister despite winning the largest number of 80 seats while JD-U won 71 seats only. However, soon after differences between the JD-U and the RJD mounted as RJD leaders faced corruption allegations. In 2017 Nitish Kumar quit the alliance and joined hands with the BJP.

The BJP leaders claim that this time the caste combination favours the NDA which represents OBC, maha Dalit and the upper caste vote banks. The Grand Alliance too hopes to benefit from the RJD’s traditional Yadav, Muslim and OBC vote banks and the upper caste votes of the Congress besides sections supporting the Left parties.

It is interesting to note that the Bihar Assembly polls are taking place a year after the NDA swept the 2019 national elections by winning 39 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state. The BJP bagged 17 Lok Sabha seats and the JD-U with 16 Lok Sabha seats was the second-largest constituent of the NDA. Yet, it did not have a minister in the Union cabinet. Apparently, it wanted two cabinet berths but was offered only one. There was a 17-17-6 seat division between the BJP, JD-U and the LJP for contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Though the voting patterns in national and state elections are usually different, it remains to be seen if the NDA will maintain its Lok Sabha poll lead in the assembly elections as well. Similarly, the 2020 state polls will test how much lost ground the RJD and the Congress have covered since May last year.

Campaign styles

The NDA and the Grand Alliance members are trying to woo the voters with tall promises while leveling charges against each other.

While the NDA is targeting the misgovernance and corruption under the 15 year rule of RJD founder and former chief minister Lalu Prasad, the Grand Alliance is blaming the Nitish Kumar government over the lack of development during the past 15 years.

Another feature of the Bihar poll campaign is that while the NDA is harping on the development projects started in the past six years with generous help from the Modi government, the Grand Alliance is picking holes in the JD-U-BJP’s narrative by highlighting issues like joblessness, economic slump, poor health care system and the plight of migrant workers.

The NDA is citing the double engine government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to promise more development as compared to the previous RJD rule when Lalu Prasad became the face of social justice and dominated the Bihar politics but the state continued to be in an abyss.

PM Modi and union home minister Amit Shah besides BJP national president JP Nadda will campaign and defence minister Rajnath Singh may also join them. Former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is BJP’s election in-charge and party leader Tejasvi Surya have also been deployed. Nitish Kumar started off by addressing virtual rallies and later attended several physical ones.

The Opposition is certainly missing the charismatic Lalu Prasad, who is undergoing treatment at the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Ranchi.

As Lalu Prasad is serving a jail term in the fodder scam case, the RJD campaign is being led by his son Tejashwi Yadav who was Nitish Kumar’s deputy in 2015. In his heydays, Lalu Prasad successfully mobilised the Yadav, Dalit and Muslim vote banks to continue his winning streak from 1990s till 2005 when Nitish Kumar emerged as the popular OBC leader in the state and became a counterbalance to the RJD founder.

Interestingly, in 2015 polls Lalu Prasad cleverly used the controversial statement of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat seeking review of the reservation policy to sway the OBC vote banks in RJD’s favour by painting the NDA as anti-backward classes.

This time, the campaign of Tejashwi, the chief ministerial face of the Grand Alliance, heavily focuses on the promise of creating jobs for the youth. As he attracts large crowds in his rallies, Tejashwi never fails to blame the Nitish government for neglecting the state. “I am a pure Bihari. My DNA is pure. As I have announced that if we come to power, we will give jobs to 10 lakh youth in the first cabinet,” Tejashwi said while releasing the Grand Alliance manifesto.

Targeting the chief minister he said, Nitish Kumar is tired. “The Chief Minister is physically and mentally tired. After his 15-year rule, he is asking where is the money for jobs!  30,000 crore is Bihar’s budget, where is the money? All gone in 60 scams on his watch. His Jal-Jeevan-Hariyali policy has been assigned  24,000 crore. It is all going into corruption. He spent  500 crore to brighten his face in ads. Then he makes this laughable comment about where’s the money to give jobs,” Tejashwi said.

“Nitish Kumar also said there is no ocean near Bihar, so no industries and factories? Winning and losing is part of the game but this Chief Minister has lost it mentally and physically. There is a provision in the budget for 4.5 lakh jobs that are vacant. And 5.5 lakh jobs more are needed for Bihar’s progress, according to Niti Aayog. If there is a will, it is possible,” he said.

The 2020 polls are crucial for the RJD, which secured 80 seats in 2015 elections and is contesting on 144 seats this time. The stakes are also high for the Congress, which had won 27 seats in the 2015 polls, as it remains to be seen whether the opposition party can improve its tally or will remain a junior partner to the RJD.

The Congress is appealing to the voters with the theme “Bole Bihar Badle Sarkar” and is highlighting poor condition of education, unemployment, rising corruption, uncontrolled crime and the state government’s failure to deal with surging Coronavirus cases, during 15 year rule of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi will address six rallies including two election meetings he addressed on October 23 at Kahalgaon in Bhagalpur and Hisua in Nawada to seek support for the party candidates.

Besides Rahul, party interim chief Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Sachin Pilot, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Shatrughan Sinha, Kirti Azad, Meira Kumar, Randeep Surjewala and Raj Babbar are expected to campaign.

To counter Tejashwi Yadav’s promise of 10 lakh jobs the BJP has promised 19 lakh jobs and free Covid-19 vaccine for every state resident inviting a lot of criticism for playing politics over the health emergency.

The Congress dubbed the BJP’s manifesto another fake promise and questioned the saffron party over the long pending demand of granting special status to Bihar. That this is a difficult election for the NDA is proved by the fact that the BJP has also asked Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to campaign in Bihar in order to capitalise on his image of a strong Hindutva leader.

Interestingly, the removal of Article 370 of the Constitution in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 also found a mention during the assembly polls campaign with both the UP CM and PM Modi boasting about it. “The NDA government abrogated Article 370. These people say they will bring it back if they come to power. After making such statements they dare to ask for votes from Bihar? Is this not an insult of Bihar? The state which sends its sons and daughters to the borders to protect the country,” Modi said while addressing a rally in Sasaram.

Strangely, the ongoing India-China eastern Ladakh border dispute too found a mention in the Bihar polls. Referring to the June 15 clashes in which 20 Indian soldiers died fighting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops, PM Modi said, “Sons of Bihar lost their lives in Galwan Valley and ensured Bharat Mata’s head is held high. Jawans of Bihar were also martyred in the Pulwama attack. I bow to them.”

The EC role

The Election Commission has issued guidelines and made arrangements for campaigning, nominations, polling and counting of votes to keep Covid-19 cases from spiralling in a state that has 7.29 crore registered voters.

The Union health ministry has sent its team to Bihar to devise a strategy that will help avoid super-spreading events. Paramedics will conduct thermal scanning of voters. Polling will take place an hour longer, from 7am to 6pm. However, polling will close at 5 pm in Naxal-affected areas.

Covid-19 patients can vote, under the supervision of health authorities, at polling booths in their constituencies. They and voters over the age of 80 or the disabled can also opt for postal ballot. As many as 7.43 crore single-use gloves, 46 lakh masks, 7.6 lakh face shields, 7 lakh units of hand sanitiser and six lakh PPE kits have been arranged for the polling days. All voters will wear gloves, masks and use hand sanitiser.

Polling staff will also use gloves and hand sanitiser in addition to masks, face shields and PPE kits. Soap and water will also be kept at the polling booths. Containment zones will have more stringent guidelines. Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube have become effective mediums for canvassing. Candidates also used the online option to file nominations and affidavits and deposit the security amount. The Election Commission doubled the broadcast and telecast time, allotted to political parties in Bihar on Doordarshan and All India Radio to reduce physical campaigning and Covid-19 risks.

Opinion polls

The various opinion polls have backed the NDA though the opposition has refused to buy them.

India Today-Lokniti-CSDS

NDA-138 seats

Grand Alliance-93 seats

Others-12 seats

Times Now– CVoter

NDA-160 seats

Grand Alliance-76


NDA-151 seats

Grand Alliance-74


Criminals in politics

When it comes to Bihar, no political party can claim that it has not given tickets to candidates with pending criminal cases including serious cases which are non-bailable offences.

According to election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms, RJD has fielded most number of candidates with a criminal background 73 percent followed by BJP 72 percent, LJP 49 per cent, Congress 57 per cent, JD-U 43 per cent and BSP 31 per cent as per the affidavits filed by the candidates before the Election Commission.