Patna: Opposition parties in Bihar have opposed any move to restrict holding of traditional rallies during the campaign for state assembly elections scheduled later this year.
This is because of discomfort among the opposition with the BJP’s virtual rallies as a mode to communicate with the people in the wake of the Covid crisis, as most parties lack the resources to hold such rallies. If the traditional rallies are restricted, it will mean “advantage to the rich parties”.
“The cost of the virtual rally organised for (Union Home Minister) Amit Shah on 9 June ran into crores,” said CPM state secretariat committee member Sarwodaya Sharma.
The discomfort of the opposition was evident during an all-party meeting chaired by state chief electoral officer H.R. Srinivasa Friday to discuss the safety measures to be adopted during the assembly polls in view of the Covid crisis.
‘Ready to ensure social distancing at rallies’
The meeting was attended by state BJP chief Sanjay Jaiswal, JD(U)’s Lallan Singh, RJD’s Jagdanand Singh, Congress’ B.P. Munan and CPM’s Sarwodaya Sharma, among others.
There was a vertical split between the BJP-JD(U) combine and other parties over the issue of holding virtual rallies in the run-up to the elections.
While the alliance partners endorsed virtual rallies with JD(U) also saying candidates should not be stopped from holding door-to-door campaigns, the opposition parties categorically wanted traditional rallies to be allowed.
“We are ready to ensure social distancing, use of masks and sanitisers for the rallies,” said Sharma.
Meanwhile, during a press meet Saturday, former BJP leader Yashwant Sinha said “virtual campaigning is virtual cheating”.
“One addresses 5,000 people through virtual campaigning and claims that one crore people have listened to it. I will appeal to the Election Commission not to ban traditional ways of campaigning. Virtual campaigning is unrealistic and gives advantage to rich parties,” he added.
BJP has started full-fledged campaigning
The announcement of Shah holding a virtual rally in Bihar earlier this month created a storm among the opposition parties.
RJD leader Tejaswi Yadav had said that campaigning for elections during a pandemic is “political vulturism” and alleged the BJP had spent over Rs 100 crore for the rally.
But state BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal dismissed the amount, saying the cost was less than the pocket money of either Congress leader Rahul Gandhi or Tejashwi Yadav.
“How much does it cost you to be on the internet,” he asked, while talking to ThePrint.
Since 9 June, both the BJP and JD(U) have been holding virtual rallies. While the BJP has been holding rallies district-wise on a daily basis, the JD(U) is also doing it in a gap of 3-4 days with leaders like R.C.P. Sinha, Sanjay Jha and Lallan Singh.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar are likely to hold joint virtual rallies at a later stage, said BJP spokesperson Rajni Ranjan Patel.
Uneven battle for opposition parties
In sharp contrast, the opposition RJD, Congress and the Left parties are yet to give an indication that they will hold virtual rallies.
“We do not have the resources and even workers to enable Tejashwi Yadav to address a large number of party workers. It is an uneven battle,” said a RJD MLA, who didn’t want to be named.
Tejashwi has lately been using the traditional means to raise protests or connect with people such as visiting water-logged areas in Patna, meeting farmers, and taking out a cycle march against fuel price hike, among others. He has also started meeting party workers at his official residence.
But Tejashwi is yet to hold virtual rallies and RJD workers fear if the Election Commission decides to restrict traditional rallies, the party may be at a loss.
“For some strange reason, the opposition, namely the RJD, has been reluctant to adopt new technology. When IT came, Laluji made a statement: ‘Yeh IT-WT Kya Hota Hai’. When Twitter came, they made a joke saying that a bird is chirping. Later, the party had to adapt to both IT and Twitter. That has been the tradition: First make a joke out of it, and then adopt it,” said BJP spokesperson Patel.
The LJP, which is a part of the NDA, is another example of a party uncomfortable with the concept of virtual rallies.
During the meeting with the chief electoral officer, the party wanted the EC to clarify how the cost of holding virtual rallies will be dealt with, the LJP said in a statement.
Congress, meanwhile, appears to be aware of the need to embrace technology for election campaigning.
“One cannot completely ban traditional modes of campaigning. After all, how does one reach out to a population, which has no access to smartphones or the internet? At the same time, the (Bihar) government should give access to all parties to its infrastructure in block and district levels where there are video conferencing facilities. The number of addresses to the masses through TV and radio should also be increased,” said Congress leader B.P. Munan.
Currently, political parties are allowed to address people three times via Doordarshan and All India Radio in the run-up to the elections.
During the meeting, all political parties advocated for the doubling of polling booths in Bihar to ensure that the number of voters remains at 500, instead of 1,000. Suggestions were also given about increasing the voting hours.