The Bihar Assembly elections next month will not only be India’s first such election to be held amid the coronavirus pandemic, but will also be the biggest global voting exercise to be conducted during the crisis.
The polling, to be held in three phases, will be held at 1,06,527 polling booths across 38 districts of Bihar, many of which were affected by floods recently. Bihar has 72 million registered voters, according to the Election Commission of India (ECI). Given the number of voters and the logistics involved, it will be the biggest elections held across the world since the pandemic struck, officials said.
Voting will be held on October 28, November 3 and November 7. Phase one will see voting for 71 assembly seats, phase two for 94 seats, and the third and the final phase will see polls for 78 seats. The results for all three phases will be out on November 10.
The term of the 243-member incumbent assembly ends on November 29. Of the 243 assembly seats, 38 are reserved for SCs and two for STs.
The Election Commission announced a series of health protocols to be followed by voters, politicians and election officials during the campaigning and polling to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Announcing the poll schedule on Friday, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said holding polls during the global pandemic was part of the "new normal" as some way had to be found to balance the democratic rights of the electorate.
“COVID-19 pandemic has forced a new normal in all aspects of life. The Bihar Assembly elections will be held under new security protocols,” Arora said.
As many as seven lakh hand sanitizers, around 46 lakh masks, six lakh PPE kits, 6.7 lakh units of faces-shields, 23 lakh pairs of hand gloves have been arranged. The CEC said that 7.2 crore single-use hand gloves have been arranged especially for voters.
The number of polling booths have increased from 65,376 in the 2015 assembly polls to 1.06 lakh in this election, Arora said, to ensure social distancing norms are followed.
Polling will be held between 7 am and 6 pm, one hour extra in the usual 7 am-to-5 pm schedule. This will, however, not be applicable in left wing extremism-affected areas.
The 2015 assembly election in Bihar was held over five phases from October 12 to November 5, and the results were declared on November 8. The elections saw a 56.8 percent voter turnout, the highest for the state in the last 15 years.
From a cap on the number of people involved in door-to-door campaigning to facilitating online availability of nomination forms, limiting convoy vehicles to five instead of 10 and providing voters with gloves before casting votes on electronic voting machines (EVMs), the EC had last month announced the health protocols for the polls. The maximum number of voters at a polling station has also been reduced from 1,500 to 1,000. The postal ballot facility will not be extended to voters over 65 years of age. Instead, it will now be available for voters above 80 years of age, the disabled and those suffering from COVID-19
Apart from the standard social distancing norms including mandatory wearing of masks, those with high temperature will have to vote in the last one hour of the polling process. Fewer voters will be allowed at each booth. Voters will have to remove their masks during the identification process at the polling booths
To ensure that all voters get a chance to exercise their franchise, Covid-19 patients who are under quarantine will be able to cast their vote on the last day of poll, at their respective polling stations, under the supervision of health authorities. This is beside the option of postal facility already extended to them.
The last assembly poll held in India was the Delhi Assembly polls held in February 2020, a month before the pandemic set in. In between, polls have been conducted for Rajya Sabha and legislative council seats, involving a limited set of voters, but not the general public.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) and its allies, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, are aiming to retain power in the state. The ruling coalition is being challenged by the ‘Grand Alliance’ comprising the Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Congress and other smaller parties.
Bihar was one of the worst COVID-19 affected states in the country till late July, since when indices tracking the coronavirus spread in the poll-bound state have started appearing to be way better than those of other states. State officials cite ramped-up testing as one of the reasons for the improvement in numbers. Despite a nine-fold increase in testing, the number of people testing positive each day has fallen from 17 percent in late July to just 1.4 percent last week.
As on September 25, the state had a total of 160,178 confirmed cases, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
On September 23, Nitish Kumar said that 1.9 lakh samples were tested a day before, which is the highest single-day testing for any state in the country, so far. Over 11,000 thousands were RTPCR tests while the rest were rapid antigen tests, he said.
“Over 90 percent of people have recovered, but we have to remain alert,” Kumar said at a function in the state capital Patna.