Uncertainty looms large over Bihar assembly elections with a section of major political parties seeking deferment of the October-November polls as the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to assume a more virulent form and endanger lives.
The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), an ally of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar, has written to the Election Commission saying that conducting polls in October-November will be like pushing people towards death as the pandemic is likely to me more serious by that time.
The LJP had responded to the opinion sought by the Election Commission on holding the polls. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and other allies of the Grand Alliance have already raised suspicion before the Election Commission over holding elections in October-November given the exponential spread of the coronavirus infection in the state in the last one month.
In fact, there are three streams of thought guiding different political parties over holding Bihar elections.
The ruling Janata Dal (United) wants the elections to be conducted at all costs as per schedule as its continuance in power and survival will largely depend on holding the polls on time. Any delay will mean imposition of President’s Rule in Bihar after November and thereby the administrative power will shift to the Governor and eventually to the Union home ministry i.e. Amit Shah, who will call the shots even in routine administrative matters.
In that case, the elections will be delayed by a couple of more months and give a chance to the BJP to have its own way in Bihar in all administrative and policy matters even without consulting Nitish Kumar, if it wants to ignore him or if any such situation arises later.
It will mean a lot as the Union home ministry will indirectly decide transfers and postings of administrative officials, including district election officers i.e. district magistrates, returning officers i.e. sub-divisional officers, block development officers and circle officers. If caste-based purging or scrutiny is done in such an exercise, it affects the poll outcomes to a great extent, say experienced political leaders.
The BJP is non-committal on holding polls, saying that the call has to be taken by the Election Commission whether to conduct polls on time or defer it for couple of months in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
On its part, the BJP leadership says they are fully-geared up to face the polls and are confident of winning the elections hands down. They had already begun the exercise of holding virtual rallies with grassroots party workers, including the ‘Sapta Rishis’ (Booth level seven-member committees) to panchayat, block district and state level functionaries addressed by different levels of leadership.
The LJP is completely opposed to holding polls, saying it will endanger people’s lives as poll campaigns, despite all alertness, will be a cumbersome process, and social distancing norms, wearing of masks and other standard operating protocols cannot be guaranteed to be adhered to by the grassroots level party workers.
“Who will be responsible if the number of positive cases rises exponentially and deaths occur in substantial numbers in the run-up to the polls. Therefore, we want polls to be deferred and the entire focus should be on curbing the rise of positive cases in the state,” said senior LJP leader and former Bihar minister Pashupati Kumar Paras.
The opposition Grand Alliance, comprising the RJD, Congress, Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), have questioned the election process to be adopted saying it has chances of becoming ‘super spreader’ of the infection.
In a letter shot off to the Election Commission, they stopped short of asking for postponement of the elections but raised suspicion over conduct of the poll exercise when coronavirus is spreading fast in the state. They also expressed apprehensions over the ability to conduct of free and fair polls as it would be difficult to ensure full participation of people in the democratic process.
“Above all, what is important is to ensure that the entire poll exercise does not become a super-spreader event ultimately,” said RLSP leader Upendra Kushwaha.
In fact, the opposition’s strategy in pleading postponement of polls is to deflect the blame of deaths due to coronavirus during electioneering and to put the entire onus of culpability on the ruling alliance’s lust for power when people are dying.
While other political parties may have apprehensions about their poll prospects, the LJP, headed by Chirag Paswan, is on an aggressive mode on postponement of polls due to the reluctance of Nitish Kumar to consider the LJP for the 12 MLC seats from the Governor’s nomination quota, and a respectable number of seats in the upcoming elections. The LJP has staked its claim on at least two Governor quota seats, and 94 out of 243 assembly seats in the state.
Chirag, of late, has been firing salvos against Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar from migrants issue to collapse of the newly constructed Sattarghat Bridge over river Gandak to failure of prohibition policy in the state to holding of elections amid pandemic.
The founding president of the LJP and union minister Ram Vilas Paswan had also highlighted the fact that despite 15 years of ‘good governance’ by Nitish Kumar, Bihar remained at the bottom on all development indices.
During the lockdown, when there was a massive influx of migrants and students from other parts of the country, the LJP supremo had expressed disappointment over the state government’s alleged lack of initiative while heaping praises on Yogi Adityanath.
The relationship had further soured when it was speculated in the political circles that the JD(U) was reluctant to give away a respectable number of assembly seats to the LJP, commensurate with the standing of the party which had bagged six Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The ruling JD(U) is watching the developments closely to see if the outbursts of the father-son duo is their own political aspirations for a larger share of seats or if they are acting on behalf of the BJP to put pressure on Nitish Kumar and defer the polls.
As the no-poll chorus grows louder, Nitish Kumar has postponed the virtual rally on August 7, when he was expected to sound the poll bugle, in view of the coronavirus pandemic and floods. Senior leaders of the party had been busy for the past few weeks holding orientation workshops for grassroots workers.
Only the Election Commission knows the fate of elections as it will depend largely upon the expected enormity of the coronavirus pandemic in next two months vis-à-vis the health infrastructure of Bihar. It will also be guided by the report of the three-member central team headed by Luv Agarwal that recently visited the state.
All political parties are preparing to the best of their capabilities to face the polls in October-November. The din over Sushant Singh Rajput death case and the demand for a CBI probe is also part of the election strategy aimed at garnering Rajput votes and invoking Bihari pride.
Sushant’s cousin Niraj Singh Babloo and sister-in-law Nutan Singh are BJP legislators in Bihar. RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav held a press conference with another actor-politician from Bihar, Shekhar Suman, seeking a CBI probe.