Bihar Polls: Can We Draw Any Conclusions From 54% Voter Turnout in the First Phase?

While the low turnout could be because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could also indicate a lack of enthusiasm on the part of both ruling party or opposition voters.

Patna: Around 30 km west of Patna, Bikram is a small town along a canal. It is known for its high annual paddy production, as well as an assembly seat where the landed Bhumhars dominate the make up of the electorate.

All the three serious contenders in the constituency belong to the Bhumihar community. Sitting Congress MLA Siddharth is seeking re-election, while BJP’s Atul Kumar, known as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh long-time activist, is pitted against him. But complicating the equation is former BJP leader Anil Sharma, who rebelled against his party to contest independently.

On Wednesday, The Wire visited two polling booths in the assembly. One is dominated by Musahars, a Mahadalit caste group which the National Democratic Alliance had hoped to attract by roping in community leader Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) weeks ahead of the elections. The other has mixed voters – Bhumihars, Banias, Brahmins, Economically Backward Classes have a more or less equal share of votes.

The polling booth in the Musahari tola of Gangachak village had polled around 70% votes, while in the other only 45% had cast their votes at the end of the day.

Also read: Bihar Elections: A Poster War in Patna Reflects the BJP Vs RJD Battle

Almost all villagers whom The Wire spoke to claimed that the contest was between Siddharth and Sharma, and that they supported the panja or palm (Congress’s symbol). Congress flags could be seen at random places, and a bunch of party workers stood at the entry of the village, animatedly chatting about the electoral outcome. Barring a Sharma supporter, no other political workers moved around the booth.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) officials confirmed that most in the list of around 1,000 voters in the booth had already voted, even as they tried to show that all COVID-19 protocols were followed. Sanitisers, thermal screeners and gloves were all kept at a separate table managed by ASHA workers outside the booth.

At the booth with a mixed population, the voting percentage was lower. However, even at this booth, The Wire could see only Congress workers of the area. A shopkeeper nearby who belonged to the Sav Baniya caste group said he voted for Sharma, and not the BJP as “he was a weak candidate”.

Another who belonged to the Bhumihar caste said that he voted for Siddharth but conceded that “only 30% Bhumihars of the seat are supporting the Congress”. “But other communities like Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits are voting for the Congress. His victory margin is likely to increase this time,” he told The Wire.

Almost all who had gathered at the booth spoke against Nitish Kumar’s government.

At around 9:30 pm, the ECI said that the first phase saw 54.26% voting across 71 seats. However, the generic estimate may not reflect any concrete political trends.

An ASHA worker and two others on duty at the Bikram polling booth. Photo: Pawanjot Kaur

A Communist Party of India (ML-Liberation) worker in the adjoining Paliganj constituency expressed confidence that its candidate Sandeep Saurav has received a substantial section of the Rashtriya Janata Dal votes.

“Concrete estimates of how the polling went will start coming in by midnight but in the two booths I saw, trends are encouraging for us,” he said.

His measure was that the two booths, which had mostly Yadav and Muslim voters, saw “more than 80% voting”.

“And we are getting reports that Khushwahas voted for us. A large section of Bhumihars voted for Usha Vidyarthi. Their booths also recorded lower voting percentages,” he said.

Also read: Meet Sanjay Sahni, the MGNREGA Worker Contesting the Bihar Polls

Voters in Bikram. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Vidyarthi is a former BJP MLA who contested on an LJP ticket this time around. She is a Bhumihar. Paliganj is a seat in which Yadav, Bhumihar and Khushwaha community members can swing the election.

What the Leftist worker meant was that the Bhumihar votes, which traditionally go to BJP-led alliances, got split between Janata Dal (United)’s sitting MLA Jai Vardhan Yadav and Vidyarthi, while his party’s candidate could consolidate the rest of the communities in his favour. He also indicated that Yadavs and Muslims, who are considered RJD’s loyal vote bank, transferred their votes aggressively to the Mahagathbandhan candidate.

A senior photographer who toured Masaurhi, a reserved constituency in the outskirts of Patna district, told The Wire that the Dalit-dominated booths recorded comparatively high voting percentages.

Caste-based leanings towards political parties have characterised assembly polls in the post-Mandal era when social justice parties came to represent the aspirations of backward communities and challenge the upper caste-dominated political system.

Most of these projections are of course speculative, based on informal surveys, by prejudiced party workers, of a few booths among hundreds. Yet, the seemingly low turnout in the first phase is open to multiple interpretations. Low turnouts from time to time have indicated a lack of enthusiasm among ruling party supporters, while it has also reflected the same among supporters of opposition parties. In these polls, it may also mean that the pandemic may have impacted voting.

All the parties in the fray, anyway, claimed to have taken a lead over the other. However, even with these considerations, the total voting percentage – calculated as average of booth-level numbers – doesn’t reflect the complicated electoral arithmetic in Bihar.

The Wire has not named the villagers for the sake of voters’ privacy.