Chief minister Nitish Kumar appears to have more at stake over Covid-19 than any of his counterparts in the country, as Bihar will be the first state to go to polls after the outbreak of the pandemic.
Regardless of what his government has or has not done during its current term since 2015, handling of the contagious calamity may well have a lot of bearing on the state assembly elections due in October-November. That is why Nitish has to do everything he can to check the spread of virus in Bihar.
So far, the poverty-stricken state has not witnessed any major spike in the number of Corona-positive cases. Till the 12th day of lockdown, it has recorded not more than 32 positive cases out of which nine have been cured. Only one person has so far succumbed to the virus.
These numbers are significant considering the fact that Bihar remains woefully short of testing kits, masks, ventilators, not to speak of medical and para-medical personnel, required to handle the crisis. Many, however, believe that Bihar’s worst is yet to come. With the return of more than 1.80 lakh migrants to their home state from different parts of the country over the past fortnight, the state is sitting on the powder keg, they apprehend.
Nitish was actually caught napping when the exodus of Bihari migrants living in different states began after the nationwide lockdown was enforced. By the time, his government rose to the occasion, sealed the borders and set up medical camps to check each of the entrants, many migrants had already sneaked into the state. Experts fear that many of them might have returned carrying the Covid-19 virus. Thankfully, the cases have not shot up alarmingly yet. And if the next week passes off without any further escalation, especially in rural areas, the government will have a reason to heave a sigh of relief.
The government, as of now, has been trying to alleviate the suffering of the poor, especially the migrants who have been rendered homeless. It has also disbursed an amount of Rs 10.30 crore, transferring Rs 1,000 directly into the bank account of each of about 1.30 lakh migrants still stranded in other states. The state government has so far received applications from 2.84 lakh migrants living in places as far-off as Lakshadweep and Arunachal Pradesh.
According to political observers, migrants do play a vital role in Bihar elections and no government can afford to neglect them. Even though they live elsewhere for their livelihood, a majority of them are still the voters in Bihar. More often than not, they return to their native state for assembly elections, which often coincide with Diwali and Chhath festivals. Even those who are not able to return home during the polls wield considerable influence on the family members on who they should vote for.
Nitish, however, is no stranger to handling a calamity. It was his government’s deft handling of the devastating Kosi flood -- declared a national calamity by the erstwhile Manmohan Singh government – 12 years ago, which had endeared him to a great extent to the lakhs of migrants. On August 18, 2018, an embankment at Kusaha in Nepal had breached, leaving the entire Kosi belt in Bihar submerged. The floods had killed more than 500 people and rendered more that 30 lakh people homeless. The government had at the time risen to the occasion by providing timely succour to the flood-hit families. Many attribute the landslide victory of the Nitish-led NDA in the Lok Sabha and assembly polls in 2009 and 2010 respectively to the state government’s efficient management of the post-deluge situation.
The challenges before the Nitish government, however, are bigger this time. Now, it has to deal with a contagious virus, which can wreak havoc if it goes unchecked. Any incumbent government cannot afford to let it happen without paying for its consequences at the hustings.