The Election Commission of India on Friday announced that the Bihar Assembly elections will be held in three phases between October 28 and November 7. The results will be announced on November 10. This is the first election to be held in the country during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the first phase, voting in 71 Assembly constituencies in 16 districts will be held on October 28 across 31,000 polling stations. In the second phase, voting in 94 Assembly constituencies in 17 districts will be held on November 3 across 42,000 polling stations. In the third phase, voting in 78 Assembly constituencies in 15 districts will be held on November 7 across 33,500 polling stations.

Chief Election Commissioner of India Sunil Arora said the Election Commission has increased the number of polling stations from 65,337 in 2015 to more than 1 lakh in 2020. This will help reduce the maximum number of electors in a booth from 1,500 to 1,000.

“Election involves large gatherings,” said Arora. He added that the EC has decided to offer the facility of “absentee voters” to those aged above 80 years. Such voters can avail the postal ballot facility.

“Covid patients who’re quarantined will be able to cast their vote on the last day of poll, at their respective polling stations, under the supervision of health authorities,” said Arora. “This is beside the option of postal facility already extended to them.”

Arora said the polling time has been increased by an hour. This time, voting will start from 7 am and continue till 6 pm. However, the revised timings will not be applicable to areas affected by Left Wing Extremism.

For candidates, nomination papers as well as the security money can be submitted online. Door to door campaigns have been restricted to five people, including the candidate. “Social distancing norms will need to be followed at public gatherings during election campaign,” said the chief election commissioner. He added that the Election Commission has a list of grounds available for public gathering with physical distancing.

Arora elaborated on the safety measures to be taken during the election process. “Over 7 lakh hand sanitiser units, about 46 lakh masks, 6 lakh PPE kits, 6.7 lakh units of faces-shields, 23 lakh (pairs of) hand gloves arranged,” said Arora. “For voters specifically, 7.2 crore single-use hand gloves have been arranged.”

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who leads a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party, will fight for a fourth term. The Rashtriya Janata Dal, led by jailed politician Lalu Prasad Yadav, and the Congress are the other main contenders.

Several political leaders have opposed holding elections in the middle of a pandemic. In July, Opposition parties in Bihar had asked the Election Commission to ensure that the elections do not become a “coronavirus super-spreader” event.

Parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have also opposed “virtual campaigning”. Nine parties, in a memorandum to the Election Commission, have questioned the Bharatiya Janata Party’s digital campaign, claiming that it disturbs the level-playing field.

However, on August 28, the Supreme Court rejected the possibility of deferring the Bihar Assembly elections due to the virus. The court observed that Covid-19 cannot be a ground for stopping elections and interfering with the powers of the Election Commission. “This court cannot tell the Chief Election Commissioner what to do. He [CEC] will consider everything,” it had said.