Bihar sits at the centre of modern Indian politics. From Gandhi’s 1917 Champaran Satyagraha to the 1974 anti-corruption movement led by Jayprakash Narayan that presaged Indira Gandhi’s Emergency to Lalu Yadav’s 1990 arrest of LK Advani during the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, the state’s politics has always kept political watchers on the edge of their seats.

But trust the year 2020 to put an end to that glorious run.

With assembly elections in the state expected in a couple of months, Bihari politics should be peaking. What we see, on the other hand, is a listless political campaign dominated not by issues of the economy of social justice, or even identity politics – but by the death of an actor in faraway Mumbai.

Focus on Bollywood

Sushant Singh Rajput, a leading Bollywood actor was found dead in his flat in June. Since then, the case has gripped the attention of India’s hysterical English and Hindi news channels as well as social media. The attention has been so intense that it has spilled over into the domain of Bihar politics, given that the actor was an ethnic Bihari and spent most of his childhood in Bihar before moving to Delhi.

As part of this politics, the leader of the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal, Tejashwai Yadav, demanded in June a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into Rajput’s death. This would mean it would be the Union government rather than the Maharashtra government that would head the probe – part of a series of events that have seen a sudden, unexpected level of friction between the states of Bihar and Maharashtra.

During his own career, Rajput had little association with Bihari identity. However, Yadav’s demand was no stab in the dark. So popular was the demand to take the probe of Rajput’s death out of Maharashtra’s hands that by August, the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar himself got involved. This, reported NDTV, was a “belated realisation that there is popular support on the ground on this case and if he continues to dither, he may have to pay the price in the assembly elections”. Within a few days, the Bihar Police transferred its case to the CBI even as fevered speculation about the actor’s death continue to dominate national news channels.

Ignoring bread and butter

This inordinate focus on a Bollywood superstar’s death for an election that would elect a government for 10 crore people would be unusual at any time. But it becomes inexplicable given that Bihar is facing some serious crises right now.

For one, the state is severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. As has reported, Bihar’s health infrastructure – already one of the worst in the world – has all but collapsed in the wake of Covid-19. Hospital beds are in such short supply that in one case, even a senior government official had to spend a night on the street outside a major hospital in the capital, Patna. To add to this, tests per million people in Bihar is low, even as the proportion of positive cases from the tests done is rather high. Metrics which point to a high number of undetected cases.

To add to the pandemic are floods due to swollen rivers which course across the lower gangetic plain. As many as 16 districts and 73 lakh Biharis are affected by the floods. Attacking the state government, Tejashwi Yadav accused the chief minister of being invisible during the floods.

Postpone the polls

In more normal times, a state facing such hardships would have seen rising anti-incumbency. However, till now the Bihar election campaign has been characterised by eagerness on behalf of the ruling Janata Dal (United) while the main opposition, the Rashtriya Janata Dal has time and again sought to postpone the polls altogether.

On August 7, the RJD officially wrote to the Election Commission, asking to postpone the polls, citing the danger due to the pandemic.

While the pandemic is certainly a danger, the RJD itself might be driven by the fact that the drastically changed conditions have dealt a body blow to its own functioning. Flush with funds, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been able to conduct virtual rallies. While this, of course, would not match up to actual ground rallies, it still allows the BJP-JD(U) combine to steal a march over the opposition.

The RJD has flagged this handicap. “It’s going to be a challenge to switch to virtual canvassing,” said Tejashwi Yadav. “For poor parties like us and others, who don’t have money to pay for such huge expenditures to counter them, it would be unfair and amount to robbery of democracy and mandate.”

Another RJD leader, Manoj Jha, called it a lack of a “level-playing field”.

Along these lines, the RJD has opposed the practice of virtual campaigning, alleging that it would end up spreading Covid-19.

Apart from the pandemic itself, the RJD is also hamstrung by the fact that the party is largely in disarray. With its charismatic founder-leader Lalu Prasad Yadav in jail in Ranchi, the party has remained largely rudderless under the command of his son, Tejashwi Yadav. While in 2015, the RJD emerged as the single largest party in the Bihar Assembly, in 2019, the party was unable to win a single seat in the Lok Sabha elections.

Second fiddle

The BJP-JD(U) combine, on the other hand, are ready to take their chances with the coronavirus and hit the hustings.

Nitish Kumar, severely weakened politically and completely dependent on the BJP, would be hesitant to lose his chief minister’s chair in case elections are postponed and the state is put under President’s Rule (which would mean the Modi government would directly administer Bihar). Kumar’s position anyway stands severely weakened given that the coalition is going to fight elections largely under the brand appeal of Prime Minister Modi.

The BJP is also keen to go in for early elections, given it sees a strong chance of winning. In a sign of just how politically secure the BJP is, the party has even managed to cover much of the damage done by Modi’s sudden lockdown – even though Bihar, with its large proportion of migrant workers, was severely affected.

India Today reports that the Union government’s free rations programme as well as the employment guarantee scheme have gone a long way in assuaging migrant worker anger.

Not even identity

To add to the sense of an election without politics, the BJP has largely kept away from what has it electoral workhorse till now: issues of communal identity. Till now there has been little mention of the Citizenship Amendment Act or the proposed National Register of Citizens – both proposals which add a communal element to Indian citizenship law. This is a sharp departure from the Delhi assembly election just six months back, where the BJP’s identity-based campaigning was so sharp, its top leaders even went public with threats of violence.

And while the Bihar BJP welcomed the ceremony marking the start of construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya at the site of the now demolished Babri mosque, the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is yet to speak on it. Kumar’s silence comes even as he had in 2019 welcomed the controversial Supreme Court decision to rule in favour of the temple.