Nagpur, MAHARASHTRA – Last week, the ruling Janata Dal-United JD(U) Chief and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s “virtual rally” scheduled for August 7 was canceled, even as the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi addressed his first such event in the run-up to the Bihar’s elections scheduled for November this year.
But as Bihar’s COVID-19 cases continue to spike, the state’s political parties appear less and less keen on a year-end electoral showdown. The state has over 75,000 COVID-19 cases despite one of the lowest testing rates in the country; and the term of the Bihar state assembly ends on November 29 this year.
Till last month, the JD(U) had openly pushed for the elections to be held on time, a position shared by its alliance partner the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The ruling alliance’s position was understandable, given the visible disarray in the opposition.
At an all-party meeting in June, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) was the only party that raised concerns about holding an election in November.
“I don’t think there will be a situation to conduct an election. I seriously doubt if the elections will happen,” RJD vice president Shivanand Tiwari told HuffPost India in July. “If there is an election using virtual means, the JDU and BJP are likely to benefit because they have the resources and government machinery.”
Tiwari’s fears were not unfounded, given the BJP’s fearsome online propaganda machinery of trolls and fake news websites, and the party’s near stranglehold on the national, and local media.
“If there is an election it should be conducted traditionally then not virtually,” Tiwari had said.
Now, even members of the JDU have privately admitted that they are preparing for a delayed election. A November election is likely to have very low turnout — and it is anyone’s guess if a low turnout will suit the ruling alliance and its well-funded election operation, or voters energized by the prospect of changing the government after 15 years of Nitish’s rule.
“There doesn’t seem to be another option and the elections are most likely to be pushed back by a couple of months at least,” a JDU leader based in Patna said, admitting that Bihar’s health system ill-equipped to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The recent flood situation has only worsened the situation by overwhelming scarce state capacity.
“Even the chief minister’s residence was not safe from the corona scare. But with the election commission keeping the situation ambiguous over the polls is likely to create more confusion,” the JD(U) leader said.
The leader noted that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar would soon have to start campaigning even as he sought to contain the coronavirus and coordinate flood-relief measures.
“He is the face of the party so he will have to do the tightrope walk at some point in time,” the JD(U) leader said.
A Congress MLA expressed similar reluctance.
“There is going to be an election, maybe a bit delayed and we will have to campaign, no matter what the means are. There is a certain amount of apathy in Bihar over Corona and people still don’t understand the disease but the way numbers are increasing, panic will also increase,” the Congress MLA said. “But there will be an election and Congress will fight it along with Mahagathbandhan.”
“There is a problem with the opposition in Bihar. First, they have no option but to go with Tejashwi Yadav as its face, no matter how erratic and inflexible he may be,” the Congressman said. “Secondly, if the election is conducted before the corona situation normalizes, then low voter turnout might benefit the ruling alliance.”
The congressman’s mood brightened when he considered Nitish Kumar’s recent troubles.
“There is a 15-year long anti-incumbency against Nitish Kumar now. He will also have to answer his deviations this time around,” he said. “No matter how scattered the Mahagathbandhan is, there will be a fight.”
The one-party which does not seem affected by the prospect of the election on time is the JDU’s alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with poll watchers predicting that this might just be the election when the BJP formally relegates Nitish Kumar to junior partner status — a position, his critics say, he has occupied already.
The BJP was the first to launch a virtual campaign and is not missing out on scoring points be it Ram temple, or the Sushan Singh Rajput suicide case. A low-turnout is likely to help the saffron party by appealing to its Hindu base.
“BJP is seriously involved in its organizational and ideological motivational work through online interaction and communication. As for the party and with the kind of its size, we prepared anytime for any new challenge. As far as the elections are concerned, it is the sole prerogative of the Election Commission of India as to when, how, and where the elections to take place. BJP respects the authority of the commission so we will abide by its decisions,” said BJP’s Bihar spokesperson Nikhil Anand when asked about his party’s preparations.