Even in normal times, the assembly elections in Bihar, slated for November, would have posed a big challenge to the opposition, beating the incumbency of the ruling coalition headed by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
In the last five years, Bihar’s opposition parties, consisting of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD, the Congress and smaller parties, have undergone a lot of convulsions.
Nitish still looks invincible because of his government’s ability to overcome crisis one after another, despite the bickering within his own Janata Dal(United) and with his partner BJP, which still dreams of ruling the state on its own strength some day.
A lot of corona cases that erupted following the return of the migrant workers from different cities and the floods have deterred all parties from undertaking the usual political drill ahead of the elections.
But, with the Election Commission making it clear that it will not postpone the polls on account of the pandemic, these parties are now forced to seek ways to reach out to voters, possibly through virtual rallies and digital platforms.
The irony is that Bihar does not boast of the best internet penetration or mobile connectivity.
Yet, the BJP was first off the mark. On June 7, a virtual campaign was launched by Amit Shah, to cover as many number of voters as possible.
Since then, several central leaders, including party chief J P Nadda as well as former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis (who has been given co-charge of the campaign) have stayed in touch with local poll managers through e-platforms, monitoring the poll preparations.
Sensing the plight of the opposition, Nitish and the BJP have gone full steam following the EC’s decision to go ahead with the holding and completion of the assembly polls before November 29.
The opposition has not minced words in stating that it may be at a disadvantage in a virtual campaign because of lack of resources to match the NDA’s prowess in using the digital platform.
A few days ago, the EC had issued guidelines for conducting polls during the pandemic. It had analysed the practice followed in South Korea and Singapore, where elections were held despite the pandemic. In fact, 34 countries have conducted their national assembly or presidential elections while fighting Covid-19.
The EC guidelines are expected to form the basic protocol to conduct elections in future too. They follow the instructions issued by the Union health ministry for public gatherings and incorporate suggestions from political parties.
As Bihar is seen as the first test case in holding elections in the time of coronavirus, the EC has allowed public meetings and roadshows. But it has underlined that these gatherings are subject to social distancing and other health safety norms. Roadshows should only have convoys of five vehicles each, excluding security vehicles, separated by half-hour intervals, instead of the existing 100-metre rule. Not more than five people (including the candidate) are to be allowed for door-to-door campaigning. Candidates can submit their nomination papers and make their security deposit online and the number of people accompanying a candidate for filing the nomination cannot exceed two.
Voters, of course, will enter a booth and be allowed to cast their ballot only if they are wearing masks. They will be asked to lower their masks for identification when required. Sanitisers will be kept at the entry as well inside booths. Gloves will be provided for signing on the voter register and pressing the button of EVM (electronic voting machine) for voting.
If a voter is found to have a fever, they will be checked a second time, and if their temperature is still high, they will be given a token number and asked to come back during the last hour of polling to cast their vote.
Similarly, those voters suffering from Covid-19 will be allowed to cast their votes in the last hour of polling with preventive measures being followed.
The EC is also reducing the number of electors per polling booth to 1,000 from the current 1,500 and allowing addition the of 33,797 auxiliary polling stations, to prevent crowding. During the counting of votes, crowding is proposed to be avoided by cutting down on the number of counting tables from 14 to seven for each assembly constituency.
If these guidelines are followed in letter and spirit, we could see Bihar setting the standard for other states to follow when the assembly polls are held in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry in April-May next year.
However, what is most worrisome for all parties, particularly the opposition, is the turnout of voters. Secondly, virtual rallies can never replace the door-to-door and large-scale physical campaigning that are any political party’s legitimate right to canvass for votes.
If the fear of the pandemic persists till November, voters may not be enthused to come out to cast ballots. In the absence of huge rallies on the ground, the run-up to the date of polling may seem lacklustre.
The people of Bihar, like in other states, generally flock to meetings to hear their leaders in person. After the coronavirus outbreak, it will be almost impossible for the parties to motivate even their supporters to turn up even at small street-corner meetings.
Central BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, may not undertake an intensive tour of the state unlike during previous polls. On its part, the EC believes that its decision to extend the postal ballot option to senior citizens over the age of 80, Covid-positive patients, persons with disabilities and voters in essential services should enable the voters to turn out in good numbers, adhering to the Covid-19 protocol. If it works well, the Bihar election could even record a 'satisfactory' voter turnout, like in Sri Lanka.
As pointed out by many Bihar leaders, you cannot cover all areas by virtual rallies. Far-flung rural, hilly and forest areas (where the internet penetration is said to be only 37 per cent) will remain literally out of bounds. The usage of smartphones in Bihar stands at just 27 per cent, bedevilled by a patchy mobile network.
An organised party like the BJP may not have difficulty in procuring devices like projection screens, among other things, to reach their voters.
In this context, former chief election commissioner S Y Quraishi has noted that the EC will have a special responsibility to ensure that the issue of the level playing field raised by the opposition parties is addressed, besides tackling hate campaigns. We have just seen the row over Facebook allegedly favouring one or the other political party during the last Lok Sabha elections when it came dealing with the removal of provocative posts.
As a solution, Quraishi has suggested that the EC could consider relaxing the stringent norms against old traditional methods like wall paintings, posters and flags. Perhaps, he says, “car, motorcycle and bicycle rallies with proper distancing could be encouraged for deep and wide reach, with restricted costs.”
It is also possible the elections may enable Bihar to show to other states the way forward in the time of coronavirus.
The writer is a former Senior Associate Editor of Hindustan Times and Political Editor of Deccan Herald, New Delhi