Conducting assembly elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Bihar has become a major challenge for the Election Commission. While the poll panel has gone ahead to conduct the election on time, the pandemic has created panic across the state. Be it politicians, election officials or voters, all are in a state of panic as the disease continues to spread and claim many lives every day.
Panic has especially gripped the political class as COVID-19 as claimed the lives of at least six leaders and infected more than 100, including two ministers and over 25 legislators, so far. The majority are from the ruling BJP and include top leaders like Sanjay Jaiswal, president of the state unit; Awadhesh Narayan Singh, acting chairman of Bihar Legislative Council; Ram Kripal Yadav, MP; Vijay Kumar Sinha and Vinod Singh, both ministers.
The JD-U headed by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has the second most number of leaders infected by COVID-19. Seven of its top leaders, including a minister, an MP and four legislators, have been admitted to various hospitals. Even the chief minister has not come out in public in the past fortnight since his niece who was staying at his official residence tested positive. Apparently, the chief minister is under quarantine in his house, though there is no official word in the regard, despite repeated attacks from the Opposition.
“It has been 130 days since Nitish Kumar locked himself in his home. I humbly request the chief minister with folded hands not to go invisible amid the COVID-19 pandemic and floods. What is the use of a government and a ruler who leaves the masses at the mercy of God at the time of crisis?” Tejashwi asked in vain.
The BJP and the JD(U) have been affected the worst as the parties launched virtual rallies and poll campaigns on a bigger scale in a bid to score over the Opposition. But these backfired on them. It all began after Union Home Minister Amit Shah held a mega digital rally in June. It picked up momentum when party’s Bihar in-charge Bhupender Yadav held a series of meetings at the state BJP headquarters earlier this month. But the move has proved disastrous now, leaving around 75 party leaders and office staffs infected by the virus.
Another major challenge faced by the Election Commission is to convince government employees to join election duty as they are reluctant to resume work amid the crisis. The office of the state’s Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) has been conducting training for the staff of various departments to educate them about laws related to the conduct of elections, procedural matters and the updation of electoral rolls. They are angry about being asked to attend the training programme physically, instead of virtual mediums and have petitioned the CEO to conduct sessions online.
“Bihar is already fighting with 2 pandemics, Floods &Corona. So @CEOBihar better not give us the third pandemic…! Whosoever wins or loses the #election, we citizens are going to suffer anyway (SIC),” a person had replied to a tweet on Bihar CEO’s handle.
The twin disasters have left villagers in a peculiar situation. While half the population in the state has locked themselves in their homes to save themselves from COVID-19, the other half has been fleeing their homes to escape floods that have affected more than 10 lakh people in 74 blocks across 10 districts of north Bihar.
The biggest challenge for the election commission, however, is to convince voters to come out of their homes and participate in the poll process to elect a new government. But they don’t look prepared to vote and risk their lives. The state government, in fact, has enforced the second spell of “total lockdown” across the state for a fortnight since July 16 in view of an alarming surge in cases of COVID-19.
Although lockdown norms have been relaxed in rural areas for the resumption of agricultural activities, farmers too have shut themselves in their homes fearing COVID-19 infection. The main reason for the panic is that all hospitals are filled with patients. The most common complaint is that hospitals are refusing to admit patients citing shortage of beds, and advising the COVID-positive patients to stay at their homes.
Experts have slammed the election commission for its plan to conduct the election, while the people are battling the pandemic. “The EC doesn’t have its own machinery for conducting elections. It depends on teaching staff, bankers, government employees and health staff to conduct polling. Just imagine what will be the situation if all these staff were engaged in poll duty. What is the point in conducting polling if the lives of people are at risk?” asked DM Diwakar, a political expert.
The term of the current Bihar assembly expires in November end, and so experts have suggested four options to authorities and political parties to handle this possible constitutional crisis amid the pandemic.
1. All political parties should sit together and form an “all-party government” until the situation gets normal 2. Make a recommendation to the governor to dissolve the assembly, and in such a situation, the governor could ask the caretaker government to continue for at least six months until the next government is formed. 3. The imposition of President’s Rule and 4. Bringing an ordinance in Parliament to extend the tenure of the state assembly.
However, the ruling NDA wants the elections to be held as per the schedule.