The Election Commission (EC) on 25 September announced a three-phase schedule from 28 October for the Bihar assembly polls, the first major elections in the country since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted political calendars and prompted sweeping measures for social distancing in March to check its spread. The second phase of the polling will be held on 3 November, and the last on 7 November. The election results would be declared on 10 November.
Chief election commissioner Sunil Arora, who announced the schedule, said elaborate sanitisation and social distancing protocols have been put in place for one of the biggest electoral exercises in the world amid the pandemic. He cited reports from Bihar’s chief electoral officer and added 700,000 units of hand sanitisers, 4.6 million masks, 600,000 personal protective equipment suits, 760,000 face shields, and 2.3 million gloves have been arranged for the polling staff. Arora said the EC has procured 7.2 million gloves for the voters to cast their votes. He added the polling time has also been increased by an hour in view of the pandemic.
Arora said 230,000 migrant workers, who have returned to Bihar after losing their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic, have been added to the updated voters’ list in the state.
“As the pandemic spread across the world, the first reaction globally was to postpone elections hoping that the pandemic would lose grip and they can conduct the elections in a more conducive environment,” Arora said.
He said over 70 countries initially postponed their elections. “However, as days and months passed and the pandemic showed no signs of abating, it became evident that some way will have to be found to balance democratic rights of citizens to choose representatives while making a systematic effort to protect the health and safety of the electors.”
The 2015 elections in Bihar were held in five phases and a 58% turnout was recorded then. The phases have been curtailed in view of the pandemic for effective deployment of security forces.
The EC is also developing a mobile application for online submission of nomination papers as part of measures to comply with pandemic prevention protocols. Special arrangements, including voting through postal ballots, will be made available for COVID-19 patients.
The model code, governing the conduct of political parties and candidates during elections, has come to effect with the announcement of the polls. The conduct remains in force from the date of announcement of the election schedule till the elections are over to ensure free, fair, and peaceful polls
Arora said the EC will take stringent measures to enforce the code, especially related to the declaration of the criminal antecedents of the candidates. The Supreme Court in February made it mandatory for all political parties to make public why they pick candidates with criminal history to contest an election.
Indian National Congress(INC) leader Shaktisinh Gohil responded to the announcement of the schedule saying Bihar will be now be freed from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Janata Dal (United), or JD (U), rule. “The people of Bihar want freedom from the BJP and JD (U) and the EC has announced the day on which they will obtain their freedom,” Gohil said. “The two ideologically opposed parties stayed together only for power. Our coalition has the blessing of Bihar’s people and it will help us form the government.”
Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Manoj Jha said they welcome the schedule but added the polling timing should have been increased by two hours. “No of voters, which has been reduced per booth from 1,500 to 1,000 should actually be 750 per booth in view of COVID-19 conditions. And finally, in order to have wholesome and free participation, the EC must go for the idea of voters’ insurance.”
The elections in Bihar will be the first direct and mass polling exercise in the country amid the pandemic. Indirect polls to vacant Rajya Sabha and legislative council seats based on proportional representation were earlier held amid the pandemic but they involved a limited number of voters.
In the run-up to the Bihar polls, the EC on 21 August put a cap on the number of people that can be involved in door-to-door campaigning as the poll watchdog issued guidelines for holding elections amid the pandemic. The guidelines allowed the submission of nomination forms online and directed voters to be provided with gloves before they use electronic voting machines. The poll watchdog said face masks, sanitisers, thermal scanners, gloves, face shields, and personal protective equipment kits shall be used during the electoral process with social distancing norms in place. Voters with high temperatures will be allowed to vote in the last one hour of the polling.
The EC has decentralised the training of officials in charge of the polling process. It effectively means that they will be either trained online or training will be conducted face-to-face in a staggered manner.
The number of tables in a counting hall has been slashed by half—from 14 to seven. A maximum of 1,000 people will be allowed to vote at a polling station. It is a significant reduction from the earlier figure of 1,500.
The voters will to have stand six feet apart at polling booths, where soaps, water, and hand sanitisers will be made available at the entry points.
Opposition parties have criticised the guidelines with INC calling them “not enough” for the conduct of “free, fair and independent elections” and for ensuring the smooth elections in “free, non-partisan & fair fashion”. The INC is part of the RJD-led alliance in Bihar, which won the last assembly elections in the state in 2015. The alliance lost power when the JD (U) returned to the National Democratic Alliance fold in 2017 and formed a new government with the BJP’s help.
The Bihar elections are crucial for the BJP as it has suffered electoral setbacks after retaining power at the Centre with a bigger majority in 2019. It was unable to form the government in Maharashtra despite emerging as the single largest party following disagreements with its oldest ally, Shiv Sena, over power-sharing. In Haryana, it could form the government only after Jannayak Janata Party’s support. The BJP was voted out of power in Jharkhand in December 2019.
The EC has held discussions with poll bodies in countries like South Korea and Taiwan, where elections have been held amid the pandemic, ahead of the announcement of the Bihar schedule.
A voter turnout of 66.2%, the highest since 1992, was recorded when mask-wearing South Koreans turned out to vote amid strict precautions for parliamentary election in April. COVID-19 patients were allowed to vote by mail or at special booths as 30 million people overall cast their ballots in the first and the most-keenly watched electoral exercise since COVID-19 disrupted political calendars globally. Disinfected polling stations were set up across the country, where people voted after having their hands sanitised and temperatures checked at a safe distance from each other.