EC sets stage for India’s 1st Covid-era elections in Bihar
Seventy-two million people will vote in three phases over 11 days in late October and early November to choose a new government in Bihar, the Election Commission of India announced on Friday, setting the stage for India’s first mass poll after the Covid-19 pandemic struck the country.
Voting in one of the world’s largest electoral exercises in the Covid-19 era will be conducted on October 28, November 3, and November 7. Results for the 243-member assembly will be announced on November 10.
“The elections are a leap of faith, not a leap in the dark,” said chief election commissioner Sunil Arora, announcing unprecedented guidelines and arrangements to regulate the processes of nomination, campaigning, voting and counting — to keep the raging pandemic that has claimed around 900 lives in the state at bay.
In the first phase, 71 constituencies will go to the polls with 31,000 polling stations set up. In the second phase, 94 constituencies will vote with 42,000 polling stations dedicated for it. In the third phase, 78 constituencies will have 33,500 polling stations.
Arora said 700,000 units of hand sanitisers, 4.6 million masks, 600,000 personal protective equipment suits, 760,000 face shields and 2.3 million gloves would be given to the polling staff. The commission has also acquired 72 million single-use hand gloves for voters.
The previous election, held over five phases in 2015, saw 58% of the electorate exercising their franchise. Arora said the commission reduced the number of phases because of large-scale of deployment of security forces and sweeping Covid-19 protocols.
“As a commission, we don’t regard it as a misadventure... it is a very, very meticulously worked exercise from our side,” the CEC said, citing the example of the recently-held JEE and NEET and saying thousands of candidates from various district across India attended the examinations. He also referred to a recent Supreme Court observation, saying life had to go on.
The Bihar assembly was slated to lapse on November 29.
The election will see chief minister Nitish Kumar seek a fourth consecutive term. His Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Lok Janshakti Party, the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) and smaller parties form the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which will square off against a fractured Grand Alliance led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and comprising the Congress, Left parties and others.
In the previous election, when Kumar’s JD(U) was an ally of the RJD, the Grand Alliance won a thumping victory against the BJP — securing 178 seats against the latter’s 58. But in 2017, Kumar broke away from the alliance and joined hands with the NDA.
One of India’s more impoverished states, Bihar is currently battling the aftermath of devastating floods that displaced 8 million people. The return of thousands of migrant workers during the pandemic is also set to change the electoral map in large parts of the state.
Arora said 230,000 migrant workers were added to the voter rolls. Polling time was also increased by an hour, from 7am to 6pm.
“As the pandemic spreads across the world, the first reaction was to postpone elections hoping that the pandemic would lose grip and they can conduct the elections in more conducive environment,” Arora said. “More than 70 countries initially postponed their elections.”
He added: “However, as days and months passed and the pandemic showed no signs of abating, it became evident that some way will have to be found to balance democratic rights of citizens to choose representatives, while making a systematic effort to protect the health and safety of the electors.”
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The CEC said he wanted to dispel doubts that there would only be virtual campaigning and that district election officers had already identified places where gatherings could take place following social distancing norms. “The propaganda that only virtual meets will take place during campaigning is way off the mark,” he said.
The announcement of poll dates was welcomed by all political parties — including those that earlier demanded that the election be postponed until the pandemic is over.
Senior BJP leader Bhupender Yadav said the NDA will repeat its Lok Sabha performance of winning 39 of the 40 seats from the state. “The NDA is going to win this election with a three-fourth majority,” he added.
RJD MP Manoj Jha welcomed the commission’s decision but raised a few concerns. Congress MP and Bihar in-charge Shaktisinh Gohil said the Grand Alliance will form the government. “The people of Bihar want freedom from the BJP and JD(U) and today the EC has announced the day on which they will obtain their freedom,” Gohil said.
With announcement of the election dates, the model code of conduct stands enforced. The EC will stringently enforce the code, especially the declaration of the criminal antecedents for which it has already announced a detailed schedule.
The EC has already announced a slew of changes in the processes of nomination, campaigning, voting and counting to ensure distancing to contain the spread of the virus.
Candidates can fill nomination forms and pay money online and only two people are allowed to accompany during the process.
Door-to-door campaigning is limited to five persons, convoys are restricted to five vehicles and grounds for public meetings need to be have earmarked circles for audience, along with masks, sanitisers and thermal scanning. Nodal officers will be appointed to ensure no overcrowding.
On voting day, a maximum of 1,000 electors will be allowed in a polling station, which will need to be sanitised a day before. If during thermal checking, a voter is seen running a high temperature, she will be asked to come back during the last hour of polling.
Quarantined voters, disabled, essential workers and those above 80 will be given postal ballots. All, except the latter, will be also be allowed to cast their vote in the last hour of polling day.