With Bihar witnessing an exponential rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, clouds of uncertainty are hovering over the state assembly elections, scheduled for October-November. The ruling National Democratic Alliance, led by chief minister Nitish Kumar, has begun its preparations for the polls in full swing, but the Rahstriya Janata Dal-led mahagathbandhan deems it highly inappropriate to seek the people’s mandate at this juncture.
RJD leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, at the forefront of the Opposition fightback in the absence of his imprisoned father, Laloo Prasad Yadav, alleges that Nitish is bent on conducting the elections “on the mounds of dead bodies” to retain power. “The chief minister is least worried about the health of the people,” he says. “But we do not want elections to be held over dead bodies. Three months later, we do not want people to go to cremation grounds from polling booths.”
Tejashwi reiterates that it would be a mockery of democracy to hold elections at this time of a grave health crisis. He also claims that experts have expressed fears that Bihar will witness numerous deaths owing to fewer Covid tests and poor health infrastructure.
Disinfectant being sprayed at the JD(U) HQ
Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi, however, brushes aside Tejashwi’s objections, likening him to a “weak student”. “NDA will abide by the decision of the Election Commission, whether elections are held on time or get deferred,” he says. “We are prepared for all situations, but the RJD, like a weak student looking for an excuse to postpone his examination, is making excuses because of its imminent defeat.”
The BJP leader says that since polls are still three-and-a-half months away, the focus now should be on tackling the pandemic instead of elections. “People who are regularly issuing statements on the polls are questioning the discretion of the election commission in this matter,” he adds.
NDA leaders assert that they would go by any EC decision on the polls. On the face of it, however, it may not be an easy decision for the statutory poll body. In June, election officials had hinted that Bihar would go to polls as per schedule, but the Opposition points out that circumstances arising out of the COVID-19 scourge have changed drastically since then. They are also scoffing at the idea of digitally held elections. Meanwhile, the EC has sought opinions of all political parties on the modes of election campaigning, by July 31. Recently, nine opposition parties, including RJD, submitted a memorandum to the commission, urging it to take a final decision on the elections after due assessment of the prevailing situation.
There is no denying that there has been a sudden spike in Covid positive cases, exposing the poor healthcare facilities in Bihar. Though the state was under total lockdown from July 16 to 31, the virus runs unfettered. From 718 cases till the end of June, Patna district alone has over 4,500 cases in 24 days in July. All government hospitals, including the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Patna, are crammed with Covid patients. Earlier this month, a video of Umesh Rajak, an undersecretary with the home department, lying on the ground while waiting for his admission into AIIMS had gone viral. He did get admission, but succumbed later. Similar incidents forced the Nitish government to rope in 18 private hospitals for treating Covid patients. It appears to be a case of too little, too late. Given the dire situation, experts say it is difficult to predict an improvement before the elections. A Union health ministry team which had come to assess the crisis recently is learnt to have expressed its displeasure over its handling.
Nonetheless, the ruling coalition partners, Janata Dal (United) and the BJP, remain undeterred, getting on with their virtual district-wise campaigns. Nitish himself is slated to launch his poll campaign on August 7. The Opposition is yet to start a digital campaign. In a jibe, Tejashwi says if the NDA is so assured of the pandemic being no impediment to elections being held as per schedule, they should go for traditional campaigning, not its digital or virtual alternative. He claims Nitish is avoiding delayed polls because of his fear of imposition of central rule. “I understand the mindset of Nitish-ji. He is afraid, if elections are deferred for any reason, the BJP will mete out the same treatment to him during President’s rule, which he has done to the BJP over the years,” the leader of Opposition writes in a recent blog.
Seasonal floods have hit Bihar hard too. People wade through floodwaters at Shekhapur Dhab in Muzaffarpur district.
Laloo Prasad, undergoing treatment at Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), Ranchi, since he was convicted in multiple fodder scam cases, has also mocked the JD-U’s virtual rallies. “The situation arising out of corona crisis in Bihar is pathetic, anarchic and explosive. The healthcare system has collapsed,” the RJD president has tweeted. “The government had to become a baaz (falcon) to control the situation but JD-U leaders ended up being the giddha (vulture), out to making people a prey through their virtual rallies. The chief minister has not come out of his bungalow even once in the past four months.”
A new government in Bihar—the first state slated to go to polls amidst the corona pandemic—is to be constituted by the end of November. Political observers believe that the state could be placed under President’s rule if elections are not held on time. NDA leaders, however, dismiss such speculations. JD-U principal general secretary K.C. Tyagi asks that if presidential polls can be held in the US, why they cannot be held in Bihar. The demand to put off polls is illogical, arising out of fear and nervousness, he states. Tejashwi counters it by pointing out that polls are held through ballot papers in the US, not EVMs.
RJD leaders have lately been stressing the need for elections through ballot. Claiming that only 34 per cent people own smartphones in Bihar, they argue that if polls are held digitally, many will be deprived of their constitutional right. Rejecting the demand, Sushil accuses both the RJD and the Congress of electoral malpractices in the past. “The people under whose reign booth-loot and electoral violence took place to give Bihar a bad name now want to obliterate their stigma with a demand for transparency in the polls,” Sushil says. “They should spell out why are they demanding that elections be held through the old system of ballot papers? Was the era when Laloo’s djinns came out of ballot boxes an outcome of electoral transparency?” he asks, alleging large-scale rigging during Laloo’s tenure in the 1990s.
Ahead of the 1995 assembly election results, Laloo had confidently rejected pre-poll predictions of his defeat, asserting that the ‘djinns’ would come of ballot boxes to stun people. The djinns, according to his detractors, were a metaphor used by Laloo for rigging.
As of now, NDA leaders aver that only a statutory body like the Election Commission has the right to take a final decision on the polls. “In keeping with democratic traditions, the commission is concerned about timely polls and it is working towards holding a safe election in the time of coronavirus,” says BJP spokesman Nikhil Anand.
As the suspense over the timing of the impending polls deepens by the day, the Election Commission has the unenviable task of taking the final call.