The first state to go to the polls after the Covid-19 pandemic struck India, Bihar is struggling to manage not only the disease but also the return of millions of migrant workers. Moreover, floods have inundated 18 of the state’s 38 districts, killing 27 people and displacing over7 million. The election – which will be held in three phases beginning October 28 — coincides with the festival season when social distancing norms is difficult to enforce and which might see the return of even more migrant workers to their ancestral villages.
A look at the key issues in these elections:
The state has come under some criticism for low testing, though the number has improved in recent weeks to 53670 per million, as compared to the national average of 51713. The positivity rate – a ratio of positive cases compared to total tests – has also fallen from 8.8% in mid-July to 2.7% by mid-September. As the state with the largest chunk of population living in rural areas, Bihar has always ranked low in availability of doctors and hospital beds. The government claims it has ramped up facilities, even in rural areas while the Opposition alleges that hospital beds and emergency services are inadequate.
The Opposition is trying to play up the distress of nearly 2.5 million migrants who returned to Bihar, pointing to their impoverished condition and alleging that the state government has done little to provide them jobs. The government has launched a slew of projects from fisheries to agriculture and said lakhs of migrants have been provided employment under MGNREGA and other schemes.Migration from Bihar is not a new phenomena but this is the first election where migration and the votes of migrant workers is set to be a decisive factor.
The first big election in the Covid era is happening in a state with relatively low internet and telephone penetration. This will affect campaigning as big rallies and public meetings will not be possible. That will mean a paradigm shift in electioneering and greater dependence on technology. Teledensity — the number of telephone connections per hundred people in a given area — is the lowest in Bihar. Internet penetration in Bihar is 32 subscribers per 100 people, compared to the national average of 54. Mass media exposure, too, is poor.
Floods are cause of perennial sorrow in Bihar, where 28 of the 38 districts are marked flood-prone. This year, though, the floods were more severe than usual and affected the state at a time when people were already struggling to deal with the pandemic and lockdown. At least 8.3 million people in 16 districts were displaced, and many are living in relief camps still. The Opposition has claimed politicization of relief, while the government has blamed earlier regimes for weak embankments and corruption.
Law & order
This is an issue very close to the heart of chief minister Nitish Kumar, who first came to power in 2005 with the pledge to improve the law and order in the state after 15 years of Rashtritya Janata Dal (RJD) rule. But a spate of petty crimes and murder cases has emboldened the RJD-led Opposition. A war of words between government and Opposition leaders has ensued.
Job creation was another central election plank of the Kumar administration. His government claims to have provided jobs to lakhs of migrants through MGNREGA and various other development schemes, but the Opposition says the youngsters and poor continue to suffer due to joblessness.
Dalit and minority votes
Scheduled castes form 16% of the state, and they are set to play a decisive role in the state elections. The changing political dynamics are also underlined by leaders such as Jitan Ram Manjhi and Shyam Razak, who have moved from the Opposition alliance to the NDA, as well as the Lok Janshakti Party, which is driving a hard bargain with the BJP. In 2015, the Grand Alliance’s victory was attributed, in part, to the solid backing it received from the Muslim community that forms 16.87% of the state’s population. This time – in the absence of emotive issues such as Ram temple or Citizenship (Amendment) Act – and a fractured Opposition, how minorities vote – especially in the Seemanchal region – is difficult to predict.
This will be the first election after the contentious farm bills were passed in Parliament, triggering protests across India. Bihar had dissolved all agriculture marketing committees and marketing boards in the state in 2006 after repealing the state APMC Act. Kumar has already said it improved procurement, while the Opposition is on the streets in protest.
Education has always been a big issue in Bihar. The ruling dispensation takes pride in a chain of national and state-level institutions, including medical colleges, engineering colleges and polytechnics, that were created during the NDA regime, the Opposition is focusing on the poor quality of school teaching.
Sushant Singh Rajput case
Over the past three months, the debate over the controversial death of the 34-year-old actor has roiled Bihar and captured the imagination of people. With the actor’s family filing an FIR, prominent politicians supporting the demand for prosecuting actor Rhea Chakraborty and her family and the possible entry of former top cop Gupteshwar Pandey into politics, the fractious issue may have an impact on campaigning and polls.