The ruling JDU-BJP in Bihar are, apparently, oscillating between the ground reality that it is far from salubrious to hold the elections in the state as per schedule and its dogged pursuit to retain power in Bihar due for polls ahead of November 29, when the term of the current Assembly expires.
The JDU has, reluctantly, deferred its much vaunted election campaign that its president and chief minister, Nitish Kumar was scheduled to launch through video conferencing on August 7. The party’s second-in-command after Nitish, RCP Singh and a battery of JDU leaders including the party MPs, Lallan Singh and Harivansh and ministers Bijendra Yadav and Sanjay Jha had feverishly been addressing the party cadres through virtual platforms for over a month to solicit support for Nitish’s election rally.
But RCP as RCP Singh is called in JDU circles was detected to be COVID-19 positive among 35,473 new patients of the disease in a single day on Saturday following which the state party chief, Bashistha Narayan Singh announced the deferment of the party’s election campaign. Bashistha said, “The party has decided to defer its August 7 event in view of the situation arising out of COVID-19 and the floods”.
Economist and former director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences Research Institute, Prof D M Diwakar asked, “If a party can’t hold its virtual rally because of COVID-19, how can it expect the voters to turn up at the polling stations? The floods are a seasonal affair and will subside by end of August or early September. But you can’t say the same about COVID-19 which is spreading fast in Bihar”.
Prof Diwakar’s question sounds logical. The fresh cases of COVID-19 infected patients are coming up at the rate of 3500 to 4000 per day and the state has got over 60,000 COVID-19 patients despite the low rate of testing per day. “The state might have a million COVID-19 patients by October/November, the expected months for holding the polls,” said the state Congress’s working president, Sameer Singh.
The BJP’s condition is exactly the same. After senior BJP leaders and ministers huddled together while observing ‘social distancing’ to listen to their leader and Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressing the ‘booth level workers rally’ on August 7, many of them, including state party chief Sanjay Jaiswal and general secretary (organisation), Nagendra Nath Tripathi among 75 party workers tested COVID-19 positive. Now, Amit Shah himself tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday and has been admitted to Medanta hospital in Gurugram.
What has made the JDU-BJP insist for the polls despite an NDA constituent LJP joining the Congress, RJD and other Opposition parties in demanding the postponement of the polls is its calculation that it had “best chance” to retain power if the elections are held ahead of schedule in Bihar.
The JDU-BJP’s calculations are based on the assumption that the Opposition parties are in disarray not in a position to capitalise on the vicious anti-incumbency plaguing the Nitish Kumar-led NDA dispensation. The Opposition’s main strength, Lalu Prasad Yadav is in jail at Ranchi and his son and leader of Opposition in Bihar Assembly Tejaswhi Yadav is too young and immature to lead the Opposition and match the might of the ruling establishment.
Sources in the NDA revealed that if the preference for the polls are to be evaluated between the JDU and the BJP, the JDU which has its Chief Minister in Nitish Kumar, is more eager to have the polls ahead of November. It’s because of the two possibilities both perilous for the JDU:
1. The first and foremost possibility is that if the polls are deferred beyond November 29, the Assembly would automatically be dissolved, paving the way for the President’s rule via Governor in Bihar. Nitish will seize to exist as the Chief Minister.
2. The second possibility is that the Parliament under article 172(2) of the Constitution has power to extend the tenure of a legislature for a year in case of proclamation of emergency.
Former advisor to the Election Commission, S K Mendiratta has said, “If the EC feels that there was a situation of natural calamity/ law and order which was beyond its control in a state, it can decide to express its inability to hold the polls”.
But senior politicians believe that holding or deferring the polls would eventually be a political decision taken with political considerations.
“The JDU will never like to have President’s rule that would cost Nitish’s chair as the CM,” said a senior JDU leader. The JDU strategists are also uncomfortable with the idea of extension of the Assembly’s tenure because the ball in that case would go to BJP-led Centre headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and they are not sure how would the PM act.
In fact, the BJP too is more comfortable in holding the polls as per schedule. A section of the BJP leaders feel that in the event of imposition of President’s rule, the entire onus related to pandemic or other ills afflicting the state would shift to the BJP. “The President’s role might be a double edged sword. It might give us momentary power but you never know how the electorate will react when it is over,” said a BJP leader requesting anonymity.
That the JDU-BJP leaders are not confident about the health infrastructure in the state ruled by them became evident when RCP Singh landed at the AIIMS, Patna after he was detected COVID-19 positive. Throughout his virtual address for over a month with his party cadres, Singh was dwelling at length on how the Nitish government had phenomenally improved the health infrastructures and had facilitated the opening of many medical colleges in the state, but he himself preferred to go to AIIMS, Patna that Manmohan Singh-led UPA government had allotted to Bihar rather than the PMCH or other state medical college hospitals running COVID centres.
In fact, the leaders of most of the political parties afflicted by COVID-19 are landing at the AIIMS while scores of patients are seen loitering around the state hospitals for tests, treatment and admissions.
The LJP and almost all the Opposition parties are clamouring for the deferment of the polls even as they feel that the Election Commission still has time in hand to take a final call on the polls. The EC had notified the 2015 Assembly polls on September 9, 2015. “The EC can take a final call on the issue by the end of August or early September,” said RJD MP Manoj Jha, adding, “Deferring the polls will be in the best interest of the people battling pandemic”.
The state election office, however, is preparing itself for the elections. Though many government employees’ unions have written to the Election Commission to defer the polls in the face of the pandemic, the EC has been training the ‘core’ officials in the use and deployment of the new EVM machines at the polling stations. “We are preparing for the polls due ahead of November 29 in the state. We are doing our duty,” a senior official at the state election office said.