Bihar is set to hold the first full-fledged Assembly polls in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic. This poses enormous logistic challenges to the Election Commission and the state administrative machinery. The litmus test will lie in conducting the elections successfully in a State that has a predominantly rural setting against the backdrop of the return of migrant workers in large numbers and the annual feature of floods ravaging the countryside. The exceptional circumstances created by the pandemic call for extraordinary measures. Virtual rallies, online submission of nomination papers, face masks, thermal screening for voters and physical distancing norms have made their way into the electoral lexicon as the political parties make a paradigm shift in their voter outreach methods. The three-phase elections, starting from October 28, will see several major changes in the conduct of elections in tune with the Covid-19 protocols. All voters must wear masks and gloves at polling stations as they sign up to press voting machines while the number of electors who can vote at a single polling station has been restricted to 1,000 to avoid crowding. With the coronavirus still raging, there was a demand in some quarters for a six-month deferral of the polls, but the need to stick to constitutional requirements must have convinced the EC to go ahead with it. However, there are fears over the spread of infections during the polling, despite strict implementation of the Covid-19 protocols.
The elections will be an acid test for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar whose political capital is already being tested by the health emergency and the impatience and recalcitrance of his allies and adversaries. He drew flak for the political flip-flops — joining hands with the BJP, then dumping it to form an alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD, only to be back in the NDA fold. However, to his advantage, the opposition camp is in utter disarray with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress being unable to get their act together. This will be the first Assembly election in 30 years in which Lalu Prasad is not the central campaigner. His son Tejashwi Pratap does not appear to be in command of the situation. The Chief Minister’s track record in the last 15 years has been mixed. Nitish Kumar took over the reins of the State in 2005, riding on the wave of the promise of good governance. He did deliver on this front and demonstrated improvement in administrative efficiency. However, there has been a downslide in the last few years, culminating in the inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The bungling was particularly evident over the issue of handling the return of migrant workers from other States to Bihar during the lockdown.
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