New Delhi: Calling the upcoming Bihar elections, the “biggest election in the world in COVID times,” Chief Election Commissioner of India, Sunil Arora, said they will be held in three phases through October and into the first two weeks of November.
The counting of votes will take place on November 10. The Bihar assembly has 243 seats, 38 of which are reserved for SCs and two for STs.
In the first phase, 71 assembly constituencies and 16 districts, including most Leftwing extremism-affected districts will go for polls in 31,000 polling stations. The date of polling is October 28.
In the second phase, 94 assembly constituencies in 17 districts will go for polls across 42,000 polling stations on November 3.
In the third phase, 78 constituencies in 15 districts will go for polls in 33,500 polling stations on November 7.
Ten districts will undergo elections in two phases, and 28 in just one phase.
The 2020 assembly polls in Bihar will be conducted in unprecedented circumstances amidst a pandemic, and at a time when many northern districts of the state are still recovering from a devastating flood.
Four teacher and four graduate segments will also go to polls in Bihar, two teacher and two graduate constituencies in Karnataka will also go to polls, the dates of which the ECI will announce later, it said.
Mentioning the by-elections to the state assemblies, the CEC said that several chief secretaries and CEOs have been seeking deferment of these and thus a special meeting will be held on September 29, to consider their recommendations.
Polls amidst COVID-19
“More than 70 countries have postponed their elections,” said Arora, mentioning the lack of feasibility in conducting elections in such times.
He said that because COVID-19 did not show signs of abetting, “going up one day, going slightly down the other,” the EC has had to go ahead with the polls.
The indirect elections to 18 seats of Rajya Sabha and some MLC elections, he said, gave the EC some idea as to the stringency of health protocols required.
Thus, COVID-19 patients who are under quarantine will vote in the last hour. Polling will be extended by one hour, except in Leftwing affected areas.
Nomination forms, affidavits and security deposits can now be filled and submitted online.
“All physical contact has been prohibited during campaigns. Propaganda that only virtual campaigns will be allowed is off the mark,” said Arora.
Over the last two months, the Election Commission of India has been discussing how to successfully conduct the state polls in Bihar, which has one of the worst public health facilities in India. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic set in, there were talks that assembly polls in Bihar may be postponed. However, the ECI officials told the media that all universal protocols will be put in place in different polling booths to ensure a safe voting process.
“Bihar had 67 million electors in 2015, it now has 72 million,” Arora said, adding that more than 7 lakh units of hand sanitiser and 23 lakh hand gloves will be deployed statewide in booths.
To ensure physical safety in such times, there will be a reduction of electors in a polling stations from 1,500 to 1,000.
Polling stations will also increase, from 65,337 in 2015 to more than 1 lakh in 2020.
Postal ballots and other new rules
“One of the significant ways in which the health impacts can be mitigated is by following the concept of absentee voters,” Arora said. Thus, postal ballots will be extended to those who are 80 years old and above, said the ECI.
In July, a Union government decision ran into a political controversy when it amended the Representation of People’s Act, 1951 under the Conduct of Elections (Amendment) Rules, 2020 to allow people above 65 years and COVID-19 suspects or affected persons to use postal ballots. Earlier, only those who were 80 years of age or older were allowed to use postal ballots.
However, as opposition parties protested over the allegedly unilateral decision by the Union government, the ECI later issued a notification to say that only disabled persons who are above 80 years, essential service providers and COVID-19 positive patients will vote by postal ballot in the Bihar polls.
Candidates will criminal antecedents will be required to publish information on this on TV channels and newspapers on three occasions. Political parties will be required to publish, on their websites, why such candidates were chosen and not others.
Social media platforms will need to ensure that misinformation and fomenting of trouble is stemmed. Mere acknowledgement of the fact that they are the providers of platform will not do, said Arora.
On September 21, the ECI conducted an international webinar, in which CEC Arora underscored the institution’s commitment to conduct timely polls. Arora, in the webinar titled ‘Issues, Challenges and Protocols for Conducting Elections during COVID-19,’ emphasised the need to train election officials to meet the demands of the time. He also spoke about how the ECI will not only have to ensure a free and fair election but will also have to ensure safety of every official on duty. The ECI discussed ways in which voters can be sensitised with the COVID-19 protocol during the elections.
The ECI was also put under scanner as speculation about the possibility of misuse of the controversial PM CARES fund during the election campaign became rife in the political corridors of New Delhi. While the ECI has said that it has historically allowed disaster relief funds to be used during elections, it remains to be seen how it would contain the possible misuse of the Fund during the campaign.
Even as the ECI’s announcement of poll dates has put to rest the many uncertainties around Bihar polls, the state itself is gearing up for one of the most-keenly watched elections in its political history.
In the 2015 elections, the chief minister Nitish Kumar’s political party, the Janata Dal (United) broke ranks with its traditional ally the Bharatiya Janata Party, and forged an alliance with its long-time rivals, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress. The ‘grand’ alliance, which came to be known as the Mahagathbandhan, had won a massive majority, reducing the BJP’s stature to a minor opposition.
However, midway into the term, the chief minister ended the alliance with RJD and Congress and formed a government with BJP’s support.
After this sudden change of political equations in the state, Nitish Kumar is now seeking a fourth consecutive term in office. Standing in opposition to the J (U)-BJP combine is a relatively weakened alliance of RJD, Congress, and Left parties. However, ground reports suggest that the incumbent chief minister may as well be facing one of the worst anti-incumbency stir ahead of the elections.
His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, resultant migrant labour crisis, and poor flood management during the last few months have come in for widespread criticism. Although the opposition is battling major defections and poor coordination between its ranks, it hopes that it may be able to whisk the issues to prominence to gain electoral advantage.
To counter the anti-incumbency stir, the ruling alliance has largely relied on the public attention surrounding the tragic death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput who hailed from the state. Both the BJP and JD(U) have already launched a state-wide campaign called “Justice for Sushant” ahead of the elections, in what appears to be their attempt to stoke a sub-nationalist sentiment.
The constant invoking of “Bihari pride” to ramp up the controversy around the actor’s death, political observers believe, is a conscious strategy to corner the opposition who have been attacking the chief minister on the governance front in its campaign.
The elections will be as much a test for opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav as it will for the experienced Nitish. Tejashwi will lead the alliance single handedly in the upcoming polls as his father Lalu Prasad Yadav still is imprisoned and is undergoing treatment in Ranchi.
His challenge will be to garner the support of communities outside of his party base that comprises Yadavs and Muslims. While Nitish Kumar will look to consolidate his support base among the Economically Backward Classes and Mahadalits, who have been the most-affected communities because of the economic crash during the pandemic. His political mettle will also be tested in the efforts he makes to bring the estranged ally, the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party, which has been surprisingly critical of the Bihar government.
Over the next month, political parties are likely to come up with innovative campaigns to beat the COVID-19 restrictions in what promises to be an intense battle between the two fronts. The upcoming polls in the times of a pandemic will, indeed, be one of the most keenly-observed polls on all fronts, and is likely to go down as a watershed moment in the state’s history.