Nitish wants elections despite the pandemic for credibility. Opp wants them delayed to make him look power-hungry
Of course, elections and governments cannot be delayed indefinitely and polls must be conducted within feasible limits even in pandemic times. There are precedents, too, with South Korea, Singapore, Poland and neighbouring Sri Lanka overseeing them with hygiene and social distancing discipline and reporting no cluster outbreaks. But Bihar, which will be the first State to conduct elections under the shadow of COVID-19, poses a far bigger challenge and runs the risk of becoming a super-spreader event, considering the virus is expected to spiral in the State in October and its infectivity could be difficult to contain. The situation has been further complicated by widespread floods and river refugees. If the Election Commission (EC), which is expected to spend Rs 625 crore on safety protocols, protective gear and more polling booths, succeeds, it would have managed a logistical impossibility. If not, it risks its credibility. But its hands are tied at the moment because elections must be held before the term of the current Assembly ends on November 29. It has to at least notify the schedule before it can exercise extraordinary powers to defer voting should the situation so demand. Politically, however, each party in the State is prioritising its own survival in the name of public health and is either in favour or against the polling in October, depending on which side of the divide each is on. Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar wants elections on time before he is swamped by the barrage of criticism on handling the pandemic, flood management and the returnee migrants. If this continues for long, his credibility as a leader would take a further hit. He may be in alliance with the BJP but the latter, while acknowledging him as chief ministerial candidate, is still as ambitious about becoming the voters’ first choice. It hasn’t helped that he has lost out in ratings to his Uttar Pradesh counterpart Yogi Adityanath in crisis management, the appreciation damagingly coming from his own people, mostly labourers and students. Any delay in polls could lead to President’s Rule in Bihar after November and the administrative powers would shift out of his hands to the Central Government. The BJP would undoubtedly encash that intervention to solidify its political presence and further expose Nitish as an incapable administrator, play up the Narendra Modi card and sideline him. Already, the EC’s decision to allow voters aged 65 years and above, as well as those under institutional or home quarantine, to cast their votes through postal ballot has raised hackles. Opposition leaders fear this would lead to dependencies on intermediaries and could lead to manipulation of the mandate and foul play by those controlling “resources.” Therefore, for a desperate Nitish, elections need to happen now. It is because of his dipping fortunes that the BJP has stayed away from the “postpone polls” debate, leaving it to the EC to hold them now or defer them. Now or later, it doesn’t stand to lose anything and is sitting pretty. It has even begun its virtual rallies before other parties can figure out strategies.
The Opposition alliance, comprising the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Congress and others, are calling for postponement of polls, not so much out of concern for people but to gather fodder for pulling down Nitish. They are already calling him “power-hungry” at a time when the State is reeling under the twin burdens of disease and natural disasters. If polls are held now, their attack on Nitish could be blunted without a corresponding spike in their fortunes. The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has its own agenda ever since Nitish refused to consider its representatives for Legislative Council seats under the Governor’s quota. Now there are reports that he doesn’t want to let go of as many Assembly seats for the LJP at BJP’s behest though it won six Lok Sabha seats last year. Its leader Chirag Paswan is going hammer and tongs against him everyday, particularly after Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) founder and former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, also a Dalit, left the Opposition bloc to join the ruling alliance. Paswan doesn’t want any drift in the votebank now. According to the 2011 census, the Scheduled Castes are 15 per cent of Bihar’s population. The Mahadalits constitute nearly 16 per cent and though cultivated by Nitish, are now swerving towards the RJD, which has the core traditional votes of the Muslims and Yadavs. Nitish is also poaching RJD MLAs but he has burnt bridges with fellow socialists so badly that he has no other option but to be with the BJP and keep himself relevant there. His performance graph over the last couple of years — Patna floods, the Muzaffarpur encephalitis deaths, the pile of prohibition-related cases in courts and the State’s dismal rank in the Sustainable Development Goals Index — had anyway diluted his appeal. Unfortunately for him, Bihar’s infrastructure, bedevilled by apathy and funds crunch, has been badly torn apart by the pandemic and the floods. And his famed saviour aura is all but gone now. Now he is another politician in the numbers game.
Saturday, 22 August 2020 | Pioneer
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