Indias first full fledged Assembly elections held amid the COVID-19 pandemic is under way in Bihar, and the Election Commission of India (ECI) guidelines for campaigning are clearly only being observed in breach.
In indoor public meetings where the crowd is not to exceed 200 and social distancing of at least six feet is expected in rallies, the rules are visibly being violated. In Chapra, at a Janata Dal (United) meeting held by candidate Chandrika Rai (ex-father-in-law of Tej Pratap Yadav), the rally stage itself collapsed as there were too many people atop it. In Gaya, the local administration has lodged an FIR against organisers of an event where Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national president J.P. Nadda was present for violating social distancing norms. When Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leaders Tejaswi and Tej Pratap Yadav filed their nomination papers, they too took out a mini-road show violating norms. Politically, social distancing violation has become an equal opportunity infraction.
Some of it, say party leaders, is due to the fact that for long elections have been a participative event not just on polling day but during campaigns too. Big shows of strength with a large turnout are par for the course while filing nominations, and public rallies. The ECs rules allowing only a handful of people in these events is a culture shock yet to be adapted to.
The Election Commission has set proper guidelines, although yes, they are being observed more in breach as we as a society experience elections as a festival with high participation. Fortunately for Bihar, COVID-19 incidence is low with highest recovery rate and second highest level of testing in the country. Perhaps it has given people some sort of signal to move ahead with activities, but that cannot be allowed, we need to improve, said BJP prabhari for Bihar polls Devendra Fadnavis when he spoke to The Hindu during a sit down interview.
A senior Union Minister from Bihar remarked that there is widespread belief in the countryside that COVID-19 pandemic was over or at any rate was not an issue in rural areas. I was told that wearing a mask was akin to putting a jaaby (nose bag with hay) around the neck of cattle, he said. Indeed, mask wearing is rarer in the countryside, and photos of rallies in rural areas show this quite clearly.
Apart from this, the rules have also given rise to more basic issues of power and authority. Dhiraj Kushwaha, spokesperson for the Upendra Kukshwaha-led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), told The Hindu that his party was finding it difficult reserving grounds designated for public meetings in various districts as they had been booked by the ruling NDA. We are quite worried as this makes it difficult for us to hold slightly big meetings within EC rules. The ruling combine has managed to book all the space, he said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is all set to address his first rallies in the polls on October 23, to be a mix of real and virtual and BJP sources said that all will be done within the ECs rules. The Bihar polls will be a template for the next set of polls to be held, possibly early next year, with many lessons learnt.