Unemployment, migration, health, education headlined India’s first election amid COVID-19 pandemic
The 2020 Bihar Assembly elections will be remembered for many things: For being the maiden election in the world’s largest democracy amid the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic; and for bringing issues concerning the common men back to the centrestage after long.
Unemployment, migration, health, education and irrigation dominated electoral campaigns, a pleasant surprise for many even as several experts pointed out that such issues have left a deep imprint on the voters this time.
The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) pegged Bihar’s unemployment rate at a whopping 46.6 per cent. Unemployment was growing at 30.9 per cent among youths in the state, according to a June 2020 report of the Periodic Labour Force Survey.
“For the first time in many years, the issues of the common men emerged as key poll issues,” said DM Diwakar, professor economics at Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies.
“Unemployment, especially, emerged a big issue for youths across castes, communities and religions. They wanted to hear about nothing else but jobs,” he added.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party succeeded in setting the agenda for most of the elections in the recent past. This time too it tried to sneak in controversial issues like the abrogation of Article 370, the Ram temple, Citizenship Amendment Act and Bangladeshi infiltration.
Chief Minsiter Nitish Kumar, incumbent for most parts of the last one-and-a-half decade, leads the NDA in Bihar, one of India’s most backward states.
But the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance), led by Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav, stalled them with a campaign focussed on the basics that drew a tremendous response at the campaign stage.
Yadav talked of “padhai, kamai, dawai, sinchai aur mahangai” (education, employment, healthcare, irrigation and price rise). He kept promising a million government jobs to the youth if voted to power and never deviated from the agenda despite criticism and ridicule from the NDA.
Eventually, the BJP was compelled to promise 1.9 million jobs.
A huge part of the population has been hit hard by joblessness, especially during the lockdown to counter the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Most of them were from scheduled castes and tribes and poor, political expert Satyanarayan Madan said. While the middle class could at least manage to stay afloat amid such a crisis, the deprived sections couldn’t.
According to an official report, nearly three million migrant workers returned to the state after the lockdown.
Election Commission of India pegged the number of migrant voters in the state at nearly 1.9 million. In 29 of the state’s 38 districts, there were 40,000-100,000 migrants voters. Madhubani and East Champaran districts, in fact, had more than 100,000 voters; four districts had more than 80,000.
Floods became another key issue. The state is not new to deluges — some nine million people across 16 districts in north Bihar are badly affected by the overflowing of rivers like Kosi — but this time the victims felt ignored.
“Many appeared reluctant to approach flood victims for the fear of being infected by the virus. The starting of the electoral process also diverted government’s attention away from the victims,” said Bhagwan Pathak, who works for those affected by floods.
COVID-19 cases too were ignored as the government machinery got busy preparing for polls. The pandemic’s death toll, meanwhile, jumped to 1,151 (November 9) from 864 (September 20). The total case count swelled to 223,477 from 168,542.
The state’s Minister for Backward and Extremely Backward Classes Welfare, Vinod Singh, and Panchayati Raj Minister Kapil Deo Kamat as well as 10 other politicians succumbed to the pandemic.
A dozen other star campaigners of the BJP were also infected. They included Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi; former Maharashtra CM and the party’s Bihar election-in-charge Devendra Fadnavis; Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Syed Shahnawaz Hussain and the state’s health minister Mangal Pandey. These leaders had to leave the campaign fray midway.
The five-party Grand Alliance headed by Tejashwi Yadav took the lead — ahead of the incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA) — in the race for government formation in Bihar in early trends that emerged from the counting of votes.
The Grand Alliance, or Mahagathbandhan, comprises the Rashtriya Janata Dal (led by Yadav), the Indian National Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) [CPI-ML], CPI and the CPI (Marxist).
The NDA, on the other hand, consists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (in power at the Centre), Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and the Vikashseel Insan Party (VIP).
Till 10 in the morning, the RJD-led front was ahead on 112 seats while the NDA on 75 seats of the total 243 seats in Bihar.
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