Ahead of Bihar elections, Parties Pick Poll Battles Against and Over Coronavirus, Literally

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar (left) and BJP chief Amit Shah greet each other in Patna. (PTI File photo)

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar (left) and BJP chief Amit Shah greet each other in Patna. (PTI File photo)

The elections will be fought on the issue of success or failure of the Bihar government in handling the influx of lakhs of ‘Pravasi Biharis’ after being rendered jobless due to closure of factories due to Covid-19 lockdown.

Ashok Mishra
  • Last Updated: May 22, 2020, 9:08 AM IST
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Patna: Major political formations and political parties in Bihar have begun poll preparations keeping the normal election schedule in mind as the Election Commission has not yet given any indication about delay in holding the assembly polls in Bihar due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

The elections will be fought on the issue of success or failure of the Bihar government in handling the influx of lakhs of ‘Pravasi Biharis’ from different parts of the country after being rendered jobless due to closure of factories due to lockdown amid Covid-19 outbreak.

Leaders of the different political parties, including the ruling Janata Dal (U), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress, ruled out any ambiguity over holding of polls on time as President Rule will have to be imposed if the government is not formed in the state on or before November 20 — when Nitish Kumar had taken oath as the chief minister of the grand alliance in 2015.

The political parties feel they still have over three months in hand as the actual electioneering will begin from the second week of September. “The coronavirus pandemic is going to stay and, therefore, the election has to be fought with it. There is no need to extend the polls unless the pandemic assumes an explosive form. We are restarting political activity without breaking any protocol,” said BJP MLA and state spokesperson Prem Ranjan Patel.

It is expected that public meetings, election rallies, road shows and chopper-hopping by star campaigners from one place to other might be a thing of past as physical distancing has to be strictly followed during campaigning. “Public contact with small gatherings through videoconferencing and messaging through electronic devices will be allowed as means of campaigning besides posters and banners as per the existing rules,” Patel said.

As the lockdown 4.0 has begun with more relaxations bringing life to near normal, the major political parties have begun the preliminary exercises aimed at gearing up in-charges of the different assembly constituencies and the booth management committees. Some parties have also begun membership drive among the migrants returning from other states.

The BJP, one of the main stakeholders of state politics willing to form a government of its own, has planned to launch its first major election campaign with the “Pradhan Mantri ke Mann ki Baat, Saptarishi ke saath’ on May 31, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes one year in office of his second term.

The Saptarishis — the seven-member committees — have been formed for almost every booth to ensure that the voters are persuaded to cast their votes. Besides, there are 67,000 booth Pramukhs and Shakti Kendras with IT-trained workers. “It will be the first step of election preparedness when the grassroots level workers will interact with the Prime Minister. This is how we will galvanise nearly 4, 70,000 committee members and grassroots workers,” Patel said.

The JD(U) president and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has held videoconferencing meeting with party functionaries during the lockdown period and asked them to spread the message among people about the steps being taken by the government to deal with the pandemic and relief operations for the migrants. A majority of the migrants belong to the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs), which forms the core vote bank of the ruling JD(U). Therefore, the ruling party cannot afford to earn their wrath.

The chief minister claimed to have done a fairly good job in handling the migrants’ crisis by setting up 151 disaster relief providing benefits to 76,500 people and 7,840 block quarantine centres housing over 6 lakh migrants. The government has also disbursed Rs 1,000 each to the bank accounts of 20.32 lakh people stranded in other parts of the country and made 8.7 lakh new ration cards. A sum of Rs 730 crore has been sanctioned for input subsidy for the farmers.

Though the economic package of Rs 20 lakh crore announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be the main poll plank of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the most challenging task for it would be to come clean on combating the pandemic and handling the influx of migrants, as the opposition has decided to make this issue its main poll plank.

The RJD has already launched online enrollment of the migrant labourers retuning to Bihar as party members. Taking advantage of the anger the migrants have been venting over alleged mismanagement and lack of basic facilities at the quarantine centres, the state RJD president Jagadanand Singh has conveyed the senior functionaries to enroll the migrants as members online as physical entry is not possible.

The RJD has also planned to make the immense hardship of lakhs of ‘Pravasi Biharis’ caused by the coronavirus distress as main poll issue of the grand alliance in the upcoming polls. RJD leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav has planned to make the alleged flip-flop of Nitish Kumar on the issue of bringing back the migrants and students from Kota as the highpoint during electioneering to dent Nitish Kumar’s ‘Sushasan Babu’ image.

“It was the offer of Tejashwi Prasad Yadav to send buses to Kota for bringing back students followed by similar offer from Congress president Sonia Gandhi that the Centre announced to run Shramik Special trains,” said Bhai Virendra, RJD MLA.

As major partner of the grand alliance, the state Congress has begun gearing up its workers for contesting at least 75 assembly seats and almost worked out on the likely candidates. “We are prepared to fight all the 243 assembly seats in Bihar as a single entity. But as part of the grand alliance, we will contest not less than 75 seats,” party spokesperson and former MLA Harkhu Jha said.

According to a conservative estimate, over 10 lakh migrants are expected to return to Bihar by the end of June. The migrants’ influx is expected to create an economic crisis as majority of their families are dependent on remittances. In next three months, the floods will hit the state and again displace large number of people. With less employment rate, it will be difficult for the NDA to cope with the situation.

The immediate fallout of return of the migrants is the increase in the number of coronavirus positive cases in the state. The number has already spiked substantially in the past two weeks from below hundred to over 1500 after the influx of migrants via special trains began.

For the BJP, the polls are crucial as it lost power in the neighbouring Jharkhand last year and was unable to form government in Maharashtra despite being the single largest party. In Haryana, the BJP returned to power but with a thin majority, while it suffered a defeat in Delhi polls. Therefore, acknowledging the crucial role of Nitish Kumar in winning elections, the BJP has already declared him as the chief ministerial face of the alliance.

The NDA enjoys an edge over rivals as the grand alliance is in tatters. Its other caste-based allies like Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, Hindustani Awam Morcha and Vikassheel Insaan Party are unhappy with him and looking for an option to exit. They held a closed-door meeting recently to put pressure on the RJD for a respectable share in seats in the upcoming elections.

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