The Election Commission, on balance, has taken the right step, by deciding to hold the Bihar elections on schedule. In the process, it has laid to rest questions raised by the Opposition on whether there should be a full-fledged direct election in the middle of a pandemic and floods. The three-phase elections are to be conducted between October 28 and November 7; by November 10, the results are to be declared. The challenge before the EC is the Constitutional mandate that requires the new Assembly to be constituted by November 29 when the present Assembly’s term expires. The EC is mandated to hold elections at any time within six months before the five-year term of the Lok Sabha or state Legislative Assembly expires. In exceptional cases, the EC can postpone the elections for six months under Section 153 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 read with Article 324 of the Constitution. In such a situation, the government will decide the future course – whether to impose President’s Rule or allow the incumbent Chief Minister to continue for six more months. The EC seems to have taken a cue from successful precedents, such as like in South Korea, where elections were held during the pandemic by taking the necessary precautions (social distancing and wearing masks). Similar guidelines have been issued by the EC for the Bihar elections.
The Opposition might cavil at the elections, but the EC has taken the cautious first step towards an exercise which cannot be postponed indeterminately, given that the pandemic effect could just drag on. Meanwhile, there are five crucial elections slated for next year. Data on the pandemic in Bihar (even if less than accurate) show a tapering of curve, in terms of cases and fatalities. Given the pandemic fatigue and logistical obstacles such as the floods which have, as per a bulletin issued by the Bihar Water Resources Department, affected over 83.62 lakh people in 16 districts, the traditionally low voter turnouts in the State may be even lower this time around. Yet, this is a better option than a suspension of the democratic process. At 58 per cent, Bihar recorded among the lowest voter turnouts in the 2019 general elections.
Be that as it may, the BJP has typically gained the first mover advantage, moving with precision and planning. It began virtual rallies in June. The Opposition may be right in pointing out the logistical advantages enjoyed by the ruling coalition of Janata Dal (U)-BJP in these unprecedented times, but that does not represent the whole picture. It has done little to secure the confidence of the voter. The main opposition party, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), is not doing well in terms of cobbling alliances, while its main crowd-puller, former chief minister Lalu Prasad, will not be able to campaign. Despite the multiple crises of reverse migration, floods and the pandemic, the ruling coalition is — for now — at an advantage in Bihar.