A disease such as the coronavirus gives an advantage to ruling parties because the movement of challengers is circumscribed but members and candidates of those in power have the government machinery on their side. Bihar has undergone an agonising few months: it’s the state to which many of the migrants returned home after losing work and making exhausting journeys, it has one of the worst public health-care systems in the country unable to cope with much, let alone a new virus, and now the northern districts of the state are facing terrible floods, worse than the usual cycle.

Discontent and desperation is growing and the incumbent regime of Nitish Kumar looks helpless. The sooner the elections in the state the better it is for him.

In normal times, people could be voting against the incumbent, which is the National Democratic Alliance of the Janata Dal (United), the Bharatiya Janata Party and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti Party. In North Bihar in particular, worst affected by floods and reverse migration, the opposition Rashtriya Janata Party has deeper roots although they have been unable to convert it to election victories after the incarceration of party president Lalu Prasad Yadav. Currently, his son and successor Tejashvi Yadav is engaging in relief work and not talking of elections in parts of the state where people are drowning so can hardly be asked for their votes.

But these are not normal times. Nitish Kumar has been desperate to have elections on time, not because voters are enthusiastic but because the Opposition would be disadvantaged in a virtual campaign. The Rashtriya Janata Dal overwhelmingly depends on ground campaigns, something at which Lalu Yadav was extraordinary. Opposition parties from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Congress to the Communist Party of India in addition to one of the constituents of the National Democratic Allance, the Lok Janashaktri Party, have demanded a delay in the polling.

But the Election Commission has indicated that state elections could be held on schedule. (In 2015, the assembly polls took place in five phases between October 12 and November 5 while the election notification came on September 9.)

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Credit: PTI

The first virtual election

The BJP has all along pitched for virtual campaigns through digital media. The Opposition in a petition to the Election Commission had written that the ruling parties seek “prohibiting traditional election methods” and were that to happen along with virtual campaigns, “it will be a travesty of unpardonable proportion to officially legitimise a mode of election campaign which is not only severely limited by its reach but exclusionary by its design”. They maintain that two-thirds of the electorate do not have smart phones and would be left out of the process. They also say that the Election Comission has yet to cap the expenditure on the “virtual blitzkrieg”.

As early as June 7, the BJP had kicked off a virtual campaign with party president Amit Shah addressing rallies that the BJP claimed were seen by 40 lakh people on 10,000 LED screens and 50,000 smart TVs. The flurry of activity in the BJP also resulted in a lot of coronavirus cases in the party, with the state president also getting infected and the party headquarters in Patna being shut down and sanitised mid July after 75 corona positive cases were found.

Nitish Kumar, at 69, may prefer a virtual campaign as there have been Covid-19 cases in the secretariat and the chief minister has been keeping himself away from crowds. The Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav is 30 and would not hesitate to hit the campaign trail. But with the election likely to be on schedule, the Opposition in Bihar could be circumscribed by the circumstances that they say amounts to disenfranchising half the electorate who are not in a position to vote.

There is a valid concern here: how do you ensure the last-mile connectivity that brings people to the polling booth after such a terrible summer and monsoon? In an overwhelmingly poor and backward state, people travel distances to vote when life is normal, they are enthusiastic about a candidate, they believe their party can win or when the transportation or trek to the booth is facilitated by cadre that ensure that people get something for their effort. None of this is possible if parts are flooded and people are staggering out of lockdowns.

In this situation, the BJP/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres outnumber others in terms of manpower and financial resources and better placed to ferry voters to the polling stations. Also, in the face of so much suffering, a low voter turnout may be to the advantage of the incumbents.

Rashtriya Janata Dal Leader Tejashwi Yadav leaders a protest rally in June. Credit: Tejashwi Yadav/Twitter

BJP endgame

The BJP/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh structure at this point is backing Nitish Kumar for chief minister but would like to circumscribe his power. The end game for the BJP is becoming the dominant force in Bihar without the need of a via media such as Nitish Kumar, one of the traditional socialist forces of the state. As a growing and ambitious force, the BJP has eaten into the powers of allies, most famously in Maharashtra where they used the alliance with the Shiv Serna to get a toehold in the state but subsequently overshadowed the regional party.

This process is now underway in Bihar. But the BJP knows that it is not strong enough to fight on its own and risk Nitish Kumar going across to the other side (something he did in the last state election). That would then make the election about “backwards vs forwards”, to use the sort of caste terminology that is commonplace in Bihar.

In the BJP’s larger game, the Lok Janashakti Party now led by dynast Chirag Paswan has come in handy. Paswan, who tried his hand in cinema and acted in a 2011 film with Kangana Ranaut titled Miley Naa Miley Hum before taking over the mantle of his father Ram Vilas Paswan’s party, has kept up a constant critique of Nitish Kumar. He just issued a threat too party ways with a formation led by the chief minister.

Chirag Paswan. Credit: Chirag Paswan via Facebook

As Nitish Kumar would presumably not like the Lok Janashakti Party to cross over to the Rashtriya Janata Dal front, that is likely to include Congress and Communist Party of India, the idea is to extract more seats for Paswan’s party and thereby reduce the numbers of seats the Janata Dal (United) would fight on. That would suit the BJP, which would like to be a nose ahead of the Janata Dal (United).

But Nitish Kumar would know exactly what the BJP is up to and to counter-balance the Paswans, has made overtures to get Jitan Ram Manjhi back into the National Democratic Alliance fold. (Both Paswan and Manjhi are prominent Dalit faces, representing different sub castes of the scheduled castes.)

Party switching has begun in Bihar, indicating that elections are happening in spite of no rallies taking place. There is also the odd situation where all the elected MLAs of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, currently the single-largest party in the state, and the Janata Dal (United), had won when Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav were allied against the BJP for the state assembly in 2015 – that was the first experiment in forming a grand alliance. Nitish Kumar would bolt a year later and return to the BJP, but the MLAs were elected on a joint campaign, so the government he is leading is not the one he campaigned for.

For some sitting MLAs with particular caste or community bases, it is necessary to switch parties to retain their seats. For others, it’s just opportunism and a case of seeking greener pastures. For the people of Bihar, meanwhile, an election is not something that is top of the mind when so many lives have been ravaged.

Saba Naqvi is a journalist who lives in Delhi. She is the author most recently of Politics of Jugaad: the Coalition Handbook.