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Bihar Election 2020 : Trial and error

Upcoming Bihar Assembly Elections are the first to be held in India amidst the pandemic and will serve as an instructive example for holding elections under conditions that are now considered the ‘new normal’

Bihar Election 2020 : Trial and error
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Bihar — the land of many firsts — is all set to register a new record in its name as it is going to be the first state in the country to conduct legislative assembly elections after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The elections for 243 assembly seats in Bihar will be held in three phases starting from October 28 and 28 and conclude on November 7. The results will be declared on November 10. The Bihar assembly election will become a witness of many firsts. Some of the firsts include missing veterans of politics in the historic election, virtual campaigning, online nominations, online deposit of security money and publishing candidate's criminal record in local newspapers during the campaigning period.

However, former Chief Election Commissioner of India SY Quraishi has stated that this is not the first time that the EC is holding polls during the COVID-19 pandemic as the apex poll panel has successfully conducted the Rajya Sabha and legislative council elections of various states under strict COVID-specific guidelines.

"We have seen how 34 countries have conducted their national assembly or presidential elections while fighting against COVID-19 and the most successful examples have been of South Korea and Sri Lanka," he had said.

Notably, it will be the first time in the past 40 years when some veteran leaders, who have dictated the politics of the state, will not actively participate in this historic assembly election. The leaders who will miss this election of many firsts include RJD president Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Lalu Prasad is in jail since 2017 and he will not be available for either online or offline campaigning for the first time from the opposition camp. Other key leaders of Bihar politics who will miss this assembly poll are LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan and socialist leader Sharad Yadav as both are unwell and won't be visible on the ground.

Conducting assembly elections — when the country is witnessing a steep rise in COVID-19 cases — is challenging in itself and that may be the one among many reasons that senior officials of Bihar Election Commission thought it wise to remain incommunicado when asked about what 'special' precautionary measures are being taken by the state poll panel to conduct a 'special' election during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hope Bihar Election Commission has also taken into consideration about the findings of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), which was last conducted in 2015-16, showing that 61 per cent of women and 36 per cent of men in Bihar have no access to mass media. Bihar also has the highest number of women lacking access to mass media in India and in terms of men, the state is only behind Jharkhand, an NFHS report stated.

Commenting on the virtual campaigning, which is a must to check the spread of COVID-19 among electorates, noted commentator Suraj Mandal said, "The Election Commission of India should have deferred Bihar assembly election as cases of Coronavirus have increased manifold and conducting an election in this period is risking the life of poor people. Virtual poll campaigning is the only option left with the candidates as normal public rallies would further worsen the situation."

"The Government has cut short Parliament proceedings as parliamentarians were contracting the virus. When the lives of political leaders are important, then why are the lives of common masses not a matter of concern for the Government?" he asked.

"When the flow of fake information is on the rise and social media giants like Facebook, Instagram, etc., have been exposed for playing in the hands of ruling parties, it would be a major challenge for political parties to make their audience believe them. In the virtual world, it becomes really tough to rely on the source of information," the Delhi University professor said.

On virtual rallies replacing the door-to-door and large-scale physical campaigning, Quraishi said, "This is not going to happen as virtual rallies have their own limitations, like inaccessibility to every nook and corner of rural, hilly and forest areas, with the internet penetration in Bihar being an abysmal 37 per cent."

"For online communication through smartphones, the situation is grimmer owing to sparse usage of smartphones in Bihar, which stands at just 27 per cent, and patchy mobile network even in the cities. Against this backdrop, with no expenditure ceiling for political parties, the parties will go for expensive communication devices like projection screens, among other things, to increase their voter base," the former CEC stated.

As per the Election Commission of India guidelines, all the candidates will have to publish their criminal records in newspapers. As instructed by the Supreme Court, political parties will publish the criminal record of the candidate along with reasons as to why they still prefer to give tickets to such a candidate. They will have to publish information regarding their criminal records in newspapers and through TV channels on three occasions during the campaign period. Maintaining law and order during election time is another major challenge before the police department. Giving his views on the law and order situation in Maoist affected areas, Munger DIG, Manu Maharaj said, "Since Munger and Jamui districts are Naxal affected, our jawans are always on high alert to avoid any untoward incident and for that, we have scaled up our combing operations. We are getting success in it too as awarded Naxals have been arrested during recently conducted operations."

"Concerning assembly elections, we have identified all Naxal-affected polling booths. Apart from deployment of extra paramilitary forces, there would be special patrolling at all sensitive booths," said Maharaj, a 2005-batch IPS officer.

"The election process as well as law and order in the Munger zone will not get affected even if jawans become COVID-19 positive. We have prepared a two-layer backup team and about 10 per cent extra forces would be deployed at every booth to conduct a free and fair election," the senior IPS official said, adding that police personnel are strictly following the physical distancing norms and sanitisers have been arranged for jawans. The district administrations are ready with their fool-proof plans to conduct the election smoothly. Poll officials have been trained to handle any emergency during the polling.

While talking to Millennium Post, Madhubani District Magistrate Dr Nilesh Deore said, "Madhubani district is prepared to conduct assembly election for all the 10 constituencies in the district."

"There are a total of 4,616 booths in the districts and each booth will be properly sanitised on the poll day. Also, every poll booth will have sanitisers, thermal screening," Deore said, adding that all polling officials have been trained to use face shields, gloves, sanitisers.

"Anganwadi and ASHA workers would be deployed to do the thermal screening of voters and if someone's temperature found higher than the prescribed level, that voter would be issued a token and asked to come in the last hour of voting. All the COVID-19 positive voters would be allowed to vote in the last hour when all polling officials would get ready after wearing PPE kits," the 2011-batch IAS officer said.

On manpower shortage, Deore said, "We have more than sufficient trained poll officials. Since, in Madhubani district, polling will be held in two phases, there wouldn't be the shortage of poll officials even if some of our trained officials get contacted with the virus. We have prepared back teams of returning officers and other staff to be deployed at different levels."

"Madhubani districts' hospitals empanelled with Ayushman Bharat scheme have been earmarked to provide healthcare facilities to COVID-19 suspects or positive cases. If any voter requires medical intervention, that voter would be admitted in any of the empanelled hospitals and would be treated for free," the doctor-turned bureaucrat said.

However, he stressed that COVID-19 is not posing any major challenge in conducting the election. "Yes, we can say that there is the fear of contracting the virus among voters, but we will try to get that fear out of voters' mind through mass-level awareness campaigns as COVID-19 cases in the district have come down," Deore said.

Most of the poll campaigning will be virtual and parties have to focus more on virtual outreach than public meetings. It's not that public meetings have been totally banned. It's allowed but only after following the strict pandemic guidelines. Notably, in 2015, the BJP alone had organised more than 800 rallies in Bihar. The rallies were addressed by several cabinet ministers and senior leaders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had himself addressed 31 rallies in the state.

Nomination filing by candidates is an important part of the election process and over the years political parties have been using it as a show of strength. Several senior party leaders are asked to accompany the candidate, but this time the EC has given the option of online nomination filing of candidates. If a candidate wants to file the nomination physically, then only two persons can accompany him instead of five earlier and the number of vehicles has also been restricted to two from five.

Also, only five persons, including a candidate, have been allowed for door-to-door campaigning. The convoy of vehicles in the roadshow should be broken after every five vehicles instead of 10 vehicles, excluding the security vehicles. Earlier, the interval between two sets of a convoy of vehicles was a gap 100 meters. This has also been altered to a gap of 30 minutes after the departure of each convoy.

Another major announcement that has been made by the EC is about the decision to allow all voters above the age of 80 years to use postal ballots to cast their votes. This option shall also be available to persons with a physical disability and COVID-19 patients. So, this time, there will be no pictures of elderly people lining up for voting on the polling day in Bihar.

The election for 243 assembly seats in Bihar will be held in three phases instead of five or six. According to Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, Bihar's Assembly Election, which is the first to go to polls after COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, will be held in three phases starting from October 28 and conclude on November 7. The polling for the second phase will be on November 3 and the results for the 243-seat assembly seats will be declared on November 10. The first phase to cover 71 assembly seats, including left-wing extremist-hit ones, in 16 districts, while the second phase to cover 94 seats in 17 districts and the third and final phase to cover 78 assembly seats in 15 districts.

"Over seven crore single-use gloves will be used by voters for voting and 23 lakh pairs of hand gloves have been arranged for officials on poll duty, including security personnel. Besides, seven lakh hand sanitisers, 46 lakh masks, six lakh PPE kits and 6.7 lakh face shields have also been arranged for Bihar polls," Arora had said while announcing poll dates.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a new normal in every aspect of our life, the ECI has also made several changes in its rulebook by extending the one-hour voting time from 7 am to 6 pm instead of 7 am to 5 pm and allowing COVID-19 patients to cast vote in the last hours of polling. In the Maoist-infested areas, voting will be allowed until 5 pm only.

As only 1,000 voters have been allowed at each booth instead of 1,500 as of the last elections, polling booths have been increased from 65,367 in 2015 to 1,06,526 in 2020. The State has a total of 7,29,27,396 voters as on September 23. The Election Commission has enrolled around 6.5 lakh new voters over the last six months, among them an estimated 3 lakh migrant labourers who returned home during the COVID-19 lockdown.

On 'poor' digital poll preparedness of the party, RJD's spokesperson Bhai Virendra Yadav said, "Be it offline or online, the RJD is ready for the polls. We need not campaign much as our leaders and workers are always among the masses. Those who have not been for the public, they need to worry about their campaigning strategies."

BJP spokesman Nikhil Anand said that the elections are happening under strict social distancing norms, which is the new normal. "The party has its chain of digitally enabled workers, who in turn arrange the digital output system through local cooperation to reach out to maximum people through virtual rallies," Anand said.

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