Patna: After weeks of taunting the “opposition’s reluctance” to contest the Bihar assembly elections, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) appears to have blinked.
Opposition parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) have been calling for a postponement of the elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Election Commission of India’s decision to introduce new rules such as only e-rallies during campaigning and postal ballots for Covid patients and voters above 65 years of age.
While the ruling JD(U)-BJP alliance had been stressing that the elections will be held as scheduled, the BJP at least appears to have had a rethink.
“It’s for the EC to decide if elections are possible in Bihar. The NDA will abide by any EC decision,” Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi told ThePrint. “Presently, there is no need for any political party to make statements on the EC.”
It is a significant climbdown from earlier statements of Modi and other BJP leaders, who all had been claiming that the RJD was afraid of facing elections because of imminent defeat.
Speaking to The Print, Modi said he was now speaking in light of the current Covid situation in the state. “The situation was not so bad 10 days ago,” he said. “But we have to see how it unfolds when election dates are announced. There are three more months before a final call can be taken.”
He pointed out that while the Covid-19 situation in Delhi and Mumbai has started to improve, the southern states, which were earlier cited as examples of Covid management, have started to peak. “It’s unpredictable,” he said.
BJP sources indicated that if elections are to be held, the EC would have to come out with a notification by the last week of September, and that the polls would have to be completed in just two phases as opposed to the earlier six and seven phases.
“We are going ahead with our preparations. But one does not know what the situation will be like then,” BJP MLC Samrat Choudhary told ThePrint.
A worsening Covid situation
BJP leaders are alarmed as the pandemic has been inching closer to them. Over the past week, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s niece, his sister and nearly 40 security personnel posted at his 1 Aney Marg residence have tested Covid positive.
Even in the deputy CM’s office, three persons, including Modi’s personal assistant, have tested positive.
The party had also strongly advocated e-rallies as a safe method of campaigning. Acc
Explaining how such virtual rallies will be organised, Bihar BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal had earlier told ThePrint: “At the panchayat level, where connectivity is an issue, we have decided to set up television screens in a big hall that can cater to at least 40-50 people. At the same time, out of our 72,000 booths, the rally will be live-streamed at 60,000 booths that have internet connectivity.”
Accordingly, e-rallies had started in the state. However, nine of the 100 people who attended such a rally in Motihari four days ago were later found positive.
This is also indicative of the worsening Covid situation in the state.
Bihar has been clocking over 700 fresh cases a day over the past few days. As of Saturday evening, the state has recorded a total of 14,919 cases, with 740 new cases on Saturday alone.
The state government has also enforced a seven-day lockdown in seven districts, including Patna.
“Under such a situation, suppose Bihar’s daily numbers increase to 3000 plus by September. It would be a mockery of the process if assembly elections are held,” said a senior BJP leader, who did not wish to be named. “Chirag Paswan (of LJP) is right — if polling happens under the present condition, the turnout will be low and people will hold us responsible for thrusting polls on them.”
The BJP leader added that CM Nitish Kumar’s assertion that all is well because of the high recovery rate of 73.08 per cent appears unconvincing.
“Not only is the testing rate inadequate, but there are charges from our party workers that figures are being fudged to present a better picture,” he added.
BJP in a comfortable position
If a new assembly is not formed by November 20, BJP leaders pointed out that President’s rule will become imminent in the state.
“You cannot be a caretaker CM for six months,” the senior BJP leader quoted above said. “Parliament is empowered to extend the length of the assembly. But it has been done only during the Emergency when the late Indira Gandhi extended the house period for two years. It’s highly unlikely that PM Modi and Amit Shah will bail Nitish out by extending the House’s period.”
While BJP leaders will still enjoy power through the Governor’s office without being in power, Nitish Kumar will lose his bargaining chip with the BJP.
The opposition now appears hopeful that the growing Covid-19 pandemic will result in postponement of the elections. “Presently, the question is not legal but a humanitarian one. Wait for a few more days, the situation is going to be very alarming,” RJD MP Manoj Jha told The Print.
The Congress too has similar hopes. “The EC is a constitutional body. We believe that the collective wisdom of parties will prevail and the EC will do its job of ensuring safe Bihar polls,” said Congress’ Bihar incharge Shaktisinh Gohil.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.