By Manas Dasgupta
NEW DELHI, Sep 25: Under the shadow of Corona pandemic, nearly 72.9 million voters in Bihar will cast their votes in three phases on October 28, and November 3 and 7 to constitute the new state Assembly. The counting of votes will be taken up on November 10.
Announcing the election schedule of the Bihar state Assembly here on Friday, the chief election commissioner Sunil Arora said it would be the biggest election in the world amid Covid-19. He said though the size of the electorate this time had gone up from 67 million in 2015 to over 72 million, polling schedule had been reduced to three phases to minimise the risk of movements of the security personnel, due to their wellbeing as well as the Covid-19 pandemic.
With this announcement of the election dates, the Model Code of Conduct comes into force in the state. Bihar’s 243-member Assembly of which 38 seats are reserved for SCs and two for STs is set to expire on November 29.
In the first phase of voting, 71 Assembly constituencies in 16 districts will go to polls; in the second phase, 94 constituencies in 17 districts will vote; and in the third and last phase, voting will be held in 78 constituencies in 15 districts.
Announcing the schedule, Arora also issued necessary guidelines and the safety and security measures decided by the Election Commission of India in view of the current pandemic including extending the polling time by one hour, increasing the postal ballot facilities for voters above the age of 80 years, allowing the COVID-19 patient voters to cast their votes in the last hour and permitting filling of nominations on-line also and allowing only virtual campaigning. The number of polling booths this time would also be increased to limit not more than 1,000 voters in each booth instead of 1,500 to maintain the necessary social distancing while casting votes.
However, contrary to the expectations, no announcements were made about the holding of the by-elections to the large number of vacant seats in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and several other state Assemblies. Both in MP and Gujarat, a number of seats had fallen vacant due to the resignations by the sitting Congress members most of whom have since joined the BJP. The political parties were making preparations expecting holding of the by-elections along with the Bihar polling.
The announcement of the Bihar poll schedule was in keeping with the CEC’s recent statements disfavouring postponement of the elections due to the pandemic. Arora while participating in an international webinar recently had stated that casting votes was the democratic rights of the people and could not be postponed indefinitely because of the pandemic.
Giving details of the safety measures decided under the “new normal” situation, Arora said several measures have been taken for campaigning and polling to ensure safety of leaders and voters. Polling had been extended by one hour from 7 am to 6 pm. The last hour would be reserved for those with Covid-19 and who are quarantined.
Arora said all elections meetings would be monitored by election and health officials. Public gatherings could take place only if strictly followed the social distancing norms. The District Election Officers would decide on the number of people allowed in such gatherings, he said.
Nomination forms would be available online, apart from offline. Security money could also be transferred in online mode. The number of people accompanying the candidate to file nomination papers would be restricted to two people. For campaigning, door-to-door campaigning limit would be up to three persons, convoys would be restricted to five cars.
He said the first major step taken in view of the pandemic was to reduce the number of electors at each polling station from 1,500 to 1,000 which meant that this time it would require more than a lakh polling stations, up from 65,337 in 2015.
Cautioning against misusing social media for the elections purposes, Arora said, “Adverse use of social media has emerged a challenged in the recent times. Digital platforms are dealt with sternly. We would like to make it clear that anyone who makes mysterious use of social media for electoral purpose shall face the consequences under the law.”
The CEC said the election officials visited Bihar this month to see preparations for the Bihar elections. They reported the infrastructure was in place to hold elections. He also said all polling stations would be located on the ground floor to ensure comfortable experience of persons with disabilities.
Pointing out the challenges the ECI faced in holding the elections, Arora said, “As the pandemic spread across the world, all election officials first thought it was needed to postpone elections and hold them in a more conducive environment. More than 70 countries postponed their elections. However, as days passed, many countries took the courageous decisions to go ahead with their election schedules with safety norms.” He said the world had changed significantly, “and certainly not for the better. The uncertainty and devastation caused by Covid-19 has changed the way we live and work. It has forced a new normal,” he added.
Ahead of the elections, several political parties had expressed reservations about holding polls in the pandemic. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which leads the opposition alliance in Bihar, had said the imposition of so many “barriers” might impact “wholesome participation of voters” in the “festival of democracy”.
RJD leader and Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Kumar Jha told the media that his party was concerned about poor turnout on the polling days due to the pandemic. “What if you end up having 30 per cent voting? My worry is that. We all love to call it the festival of democracy. But would we enjoy a festival if there are so many barriers, so many don’ts? There are less dos and more don’ts in this (guidelines) and that will impact the wholesome participation of voters.”
The Congress had said the EC’s guidelines for campaigning and voting “fall far short” for the smooth conduct of elections in “free, non-partisan and fair fashion” without giving undue advantage to the ruling party.
Speculations are rife over the seat distributions in both the ruling and opposition alliances. On the NDA alliance, the party sources said the Janata Dal (United) wanted to contest 115 seats while leaving 128 seats for the BJP, which should accommodate the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) from its quota. “Let the BJP accommodate LJP and we will take care of Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) from our share,” the sources said.
Following is the Phase-wise detail poll schedule:
Bihar Assembly Elections 2020: Phase 1
- Date of issue of gazette notification: Oct 1
- Last date of nomination: Oct 8
- Scrutiny of nomination: Oct 9
- Last date of withdrawal of candidature: Oct 12
- Date of polling: Oct 28
- Date of counting: Nov 10
Bihar Assembly Elections 2020: Phase 2
- Date of issue of gazette notification: Oct 9
- Last date of nomination: Oct 16
- Scrutiny of nomination: Oct 17
- Last date of withdrawal of candidature: Oct 19
- Date of polling: Nov 3
- Date of counting: Nov 10
Bihar Assembly Elections 2020: Phase 3
- Date of issue of gazette notification: Oct 13
- Last date of nomination: Oct 20
- Scrutiny of nomination: Oct 21
- Last date of withdrawal of candidature: Oct 23
- Date of polling: Nov 7
- Date of counting: Nov 10