If the run-up to the 2015 Assembly poll is any indicator, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government will once again be tempted to shower a pre-election bounty on poll-bound Bihar. But the rapid rise in Covid-19 infections is draining away its chances of exercising such an option. The unprecedented return of around 13 lakhs of migrant workers to the state—a by-product of the hastily-imposed lockdown on March 24—has turned everything topsy turvy. For starters, the locals have become really vocal. And they are loudly holding none but Prime Minister Narendra Modi responsible. So the saffron brigade, which known to sound the poll bugle early, is struggling to come up with a poll strategy this time.
True there are calls for a digital election campaign and poll, as the jittery Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi predicted a few days back, but how well it will work is evident from the recent difficulties migrant workers faced in simply registering online for basic entitlements including food. The government of Bihar also also said that it will not test the returning migrants for Covid-19, nor quarantine them in the 5,000 or so isolation centres it had set up, but it is already quite late.
Today the spectre of COVID-19 haunts the state, the country, and the NDA. On paper the social combination of BJP, JDU and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) of Ram Vilas Paswan appears formidable, yet the picture is not rosy at the grassroots level. There is no parallel in history for the extent to which the Centre and the Nitish Kumar government have let people die of hunger, thirst, in accidents and of disease. There is a growing realisation among people of the double standards of the government. While the students from Kota and migrants from abroad were given better treatment they, the lesser mortals, 50,000 returning workers, were stuffed into dingy rooms of government schools in the name of quarantine.
Of course, the saffron brigade had no problem with all of this until the common folk were decrying Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, but their lips were sealed when asked to comment on the performance of the Centre. Now, ever since 15 May, it is as if a dam has burst and Modi faces a barrage of criticism for the shoddy manner in which the migrants were deposited in Bihar. The death of a number of passengers on their way home, especially of the woman from Katihar whose children were seen crying by her side, have suddenly turned the mood of the people against Modi and the Railway Minister Piyush Goyal. It’s another matter that Goyal is rather busy in taking on Twitter wars with the Maharashtra government.
The 2015 Assembly election was held over October and November of that year, but the campaigning had begun in the second half of September. Plus, the active electioneering was preceded by the prime minister’s trips to the state. Modi had visited at least four places over July and August 2015. Several “development projects” also were given the green signal during those trips. For instance, at a government function in Ara on 18 August, amidst loud cheers, Modi had announced a “package” of Rs. 1.25 lakh crore for the state.
At another pre-poll show in Muzaffarpur on 25 July 2015, Modi had (in)famously said that there was something wrong with the “DNA” of Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister. This created a storm and Nitish had collected 50 lakh hair and nail samples from the people of Bihar and had them sent to the BJP’s headquarters in New Delhi for a DNA test. Though those visits were not part of the election campaign per se, their timing was certainly questioned by the Grand Alliance, which then consisted of the BJP’s rivals in the state, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal-United (JDU) and the Congress party.
In any case, the political scene had become murky and high-strung in 2015 months before the actual campaign picked up. Sure, exactly two years later, on 26 July 2017, Nitish had made a hasty “homecoming” to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) fold, leaving the Grand Alliance ship astray. But now the Covid menace stalks the land. As the poor struggle to cope, and totally oblivious to their miseries, Amarendra Pandey, alleged a henchmen of a JDU legislator from Gopalganj, shot three persons dead. In an apparently retaliatory attack, one of Pandey’s men was killed. When the leader of Opposition Tejashwi Prasad Yadav questioned Nitish’s silence on this case, which is unfolding at a time of grave crisis for people of the state, Pandey simply denied the charge.
Initially, it was rumoured that the Covid crisis would have the BJP cook up some excuse to postpone the Assembly polls by at least six months and hold elections later in 2021, perhaps with the state under President’s Rule instead of Nitish Kumar, whose image has taken a beating. But then it was felt that delaying the election may mar the prospects of the coalition even more. Besides, in May 2021, Assembly elections are due in several states including West Bengal and Kerala. The saffron party does not want to over-stretch itself, as Modi is its only star attraction.
Recall that in the 2015 polls in Bihar, the Prime Minister had addressed some thirty election rallies—a couple of them in small block-level townships where no Prime Minister had ever set foot. But this time the BJP government at the Centre has nothing to offer Bihar and Nitish Kumar has done nothing remarkable after his first term in 2005-10. So the BJP may try to cash in on the “Rs. 20 lakh crore” package announced by Modi on 12 May.
Yet, BJP bigwigs have realised that even Modi has lost his magic touch as far as Assembly elections are concerned. Since 2018 the party has lost at least half a dozen state polls including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Maharashtra. It later took control over Madhya Pradesh, but even its seat share in Haryana, a state it won elections in in 2019, dropped to 40 from 47 in 2014.
In Bihar, the NDA faces the 15-year incumbency factor, which would also work against it. Since Modi’s lung power is the only asset of the saffron brigade, one wonders how the party would be able to muster crowds for the election rallies in this era of physical distancing. The party rank and file are a bit nervous and want early normalisation of the situation and for the lockdown to end so that they can start going to the field. They also want the restrictions of physical distancing to go at the earliest. But no such possibility appears to be in sight in the state, where there is a big surge in the number of cases of COVID-19 from almost none two months ago to over 4,000 by the end of May. On 31 May, the state government extended the lockdown until 30 June.
Sushil Modi may have revealed that the Election Commission might hold a digital election and that the voters may not have to leave their homes to visit the polling booths, but it was not just the Opposition parties that had shot down this idea. Even the JDU’s general secretary, KC Tyagi, had opposed it. The party may still be gung-ho about going digital, but the chicken of COVID-19 has come to roost in poll-bound Bihar.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.