The virus has the capacity to temporarily disrupt electoral democracy. But there are constitutional and political calculations that would come into play. No government can remain in office after its term is over. This implies that Governor’s Rule would have to be imposed. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is loath to not have administrative charge when voting happens but a situation could emerge where it may become difficult to justify elections.

  • Posted: Jul 23, 2020 06:40 AM (IST)
Pandemic shadow over timely Bihar polls

Battle for ballot: Virtual rallies also involve gathering people causing safety concerns.

Saba Naqvi

Senior journalist

On June 7, BJP president Amit Shah kicked off what was seen as the Bihar assembly poll campaign with a virtual rally. BJP workers gathered in party offices and would claim that close to 40 lakh people across Bihar watched Shah’s ‘first of its kind’’ virtual rally. The party said 10,000 big LED screens and more than 50,000 smart TVs were installed to connect with workers down to the booth level. The virtual campaign exceeded all expectations, an enthusiastic state BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal told the media.

By July 15, according to media reports, the BJP state chief, his mother and wife, had tested positive for coronavirus, as had 75 Bihar BJP members and office staff working at the state party headquarters in Patna. The administration had to seal the BJP office and begin sanitising it. The party’s hyper efficiency and having several meetings in the age of corona had led to the Bihar BJP becoming a ‘super-spreader’. MLAs, leaders and workers of other parties were also infected with the virus, but were not as Covid-hit as the BJP. Since the state has a poor testing rate, it’s hard to say if people who gathered to watch the virtual rallies in villages and small towns contracted and spread the virus.

It would be terrifying to get seriously sick in Bihar that has one of the worst health infrastructure in the country. Calculations in April this year by the CDDEP and Princeton University on the capacity of different states to cope with coronavirus suggest that Bihar with the second largest population out of 37 states is at position 30 in the indicators of capacity to deal with the coronavirus. Take another data extrapolated by health experts: Kerala with the 14th largest population has 5 ventilators per 100,000 people, Tamil Nadu, the seventh most populous state, has 6.9 ventilators while Bihar on paper has 0.6 per 100,000. This figure is based on adding both public and private hospitals, while reports from the interiors now reveal that unable to cope with Covid, several private facilities have just stopped functioning in Bihar.

The question, therefore, is can Bihar have elections on schedule by October-November this year? Even virtual rallies involve gathering people although the national leaders would be safe. In 2015, the Election Commission had issued the poll notification on September 9. But before notifying elections this time, the EC would have to ensure the safety of polling officers and staff that would be involved in manning thousands of polling booths. How do you keep ‘social distance’ in voting queues and do you sanitise the EVMs each time a voter presses a button? Can polling officers and the party agents sit in the small rooms where voting usually takes place?

The virus, therefore, has the capacity to temporarily disrupt electoral democracy. But there are constitutional and political calculations that would come into play. For instance, no government can remain in office after its term is over. This implies that Governor’s Rule would have to be imposed (present Governor Phagu Chauhan is a former BJP legislator from UP). CM Nitish Kumar would be loath to not have administrative charge when voting happens but a situation could emerge where it may become difficult to justify elections (it is possible Nitish could remain caretaker CM, but it’s an unprecedented situation and there is a constitutional grey area here). While the BJP and JD(U) have suggested virtual campaigns, the RJD with a less prosperous voter base and less resources has along with Left parties submitted a petition to the EC where they say that “only 34 per cent have a smartphone” and it’s the EC’s job to ensure a ‘level playing field’.

Nitish Kumar has the most to lose in the event of a delay. Once known as Sushasan Babu, the reverse migration and now the virus have overwhelmed him. There have always been murmurs from a section of the state BJP that they should fight on their own. This could also find favour with the LJP, the third party in the NDA Bihar, led by Ram Vilas Paswan who is keen to build up his son Chirag Paswan. It is suggested by a faction in the NDA that MoS Home Nityanand Rai, a Yadav, should be projected as the BJP’s face in the state as he could attract votes from a caste block that traditionally supports the RJD. But Amit Shah has repeatedly stated that Nitish would be the CM and sensibly so.

The BJP leadership would know that if ditched, Nitish would again attempt a deal with the RJD-Congress. It’s worth recalling that Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav in 2015 had forged the first grand alliance that would defeat the BJP. Nitish would later walk away from the mandate and ally with his traditional partner, the BJP, leaving the RJD hanging, though it remains the single largest party in the current assembly. In that election, however, Lalu Prasad Yadav had campaigned fiercely. Phenomenal campaigner that he is, Lalu is now in jail and the mantle has fallen on son Tejashwi Yadav, who is unlikely to ever match up to his father, a symbol of subaltern power in a different age.

Politics of change actually appears to be there amid the lockdown in Bihar and calculations are currently based on the paralysis of most things, except a growing communal sentiment. Still, things do suddenly fall apart and it is understandable that Nitish would want elections now as would the BJP, but the latter could also calculate a certain advantage to Governor’s Rule. The RJD-led front would seek more time, both because they would be at a disadvantage in a virtual campaign and because they would hope anti-incumbency would grow with time.

Ruling Opposition parties in other states would be alarmed were a precedent to be set of moving to Governor’s Rule, should the EC decide it would be unable to hold polls with the virus spreading in Bihar. The big battle for which the BJP has set many things into motion, from CAA to NRC, is in April-May next year in West Bengal. The last thing Mamata Banerjee would want is the virus to be a pretext for delay in elections and therefore, a poll under Governor’s Rule. For no one really knows how long the virus will stay and where it will spread, beyond trends showing an appearance in rural parts. Coronavirus, therefore, now presents us with unknown constitutional and electoral questions.

courtesy Tribune

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