Bihar Assembly Elections 2020: Test for Modi & Nitish Kumar in equal measure

Pivotal issues that could decide the fate of Bihar

Politics

October 19, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

Bihar Assembly Elections 2020: Test for Modi & Nitish Kumar in equal measure

Being the first state to go to polls in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic makes Bihar a test case for state as well as the centre

The migrant crisis, unemployment, annual floods, Covid-19 pandemic and new farm laws likely to be big factors when Bihar votes in October-November assembly elections.

“This is the first election in India that will be conducted amid this pandemic. The verdict will be a direct outcome of people’s response to the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and other related problems, by both-centre and the current government in Bihar,” says DM Diwakar, former director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies in state capital Patna.

Being the first state to go to polls in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic makes Bihar a test case. It will be as big a challenge for the voters as for the candidates and political parties. What makes the challenge even bigger is the trail of destruction left behind by severe floods affecting nearly 18 districts, a battered state economy and the newly passed farm bills.

Here are some issues that will guide polling in India’s third-largest state.

Migrant crisis

Sightings of groups of migrant workers are fairly common along the Indian highways nowadays (MIG photos/ Varsha Singh)

Along with neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Bihar was one of the biggest recipients of reverse migration that happened earlier in the year due to the lockdown. As nearly 3 million migrants reached Bihar from various parts of the country. Poignant scenes of migrants walking barefoot for hundreds of kilometres went viral on social media.

As the election coincides with the festive season, many more migrants may come home for Durga Puja, Diwali and Chhath (a regional festival) and vote. “I somehow managed to return to my village within a month of the lockdown and don’t plan to migrate back to Mumbai in near future. I am still jobless and have decided to vote for the party which promises a job in my hometown,” says Uday Kumar, a -year-old migrant worker from Bihar. He further says that several candidates have promised to provide jobs to him and others like him before the polls.

Unemployment

Bihar has traditionally had high unemployment due to a low rate of industrialisation and its growing population that’s now about 104 million. Bihar lost several mineral-based units when Jharkhand became a separate state in 2000. Successive state governments have not been able to create enough jobs, pushing millions to migrate to different parts of the country in search of work.

At a time when unemployment and falling economy are national issues, its echo in the Bihar election is quite natural. Bihar’s unemployment rate had increased to 46.6 pc in April 2020, as the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).

“No wonder politicians are making big promises. RJD leader and opposition alliance’s face, Tejashwi Yadav, has promised 1 million jobs in his first Cabinet meeting if voted to power in Bihar. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar also promised to train the youth to get jobs under the ‘Pragati of Yuva Shakti Bihar’,” says Diwakar.

Annual floods

Bihar also has a history of floods due to its geographical location and poor management of an abundance of water resources. “Successive governments have failed to take adequate initiatives for proper canal systems and small dam projects to harness water energy for agriculture and electricity production. Flood management has been very poor despite annual devastations here,” says Diwakar.

As many as nine million had been affected in 16 northern districts in Bihar inundated by overflowing rivers originating in Nepal. Being an agriculture dominated state, floods ruined 750,000 hectares of agricultural land.

Farm bills

Bihar elections may also prove to be the first ground test of the controversial farm bills passed by the Parliament amidst severe opposition and criticism. Farmers in Punjab, Haryana and several other parts of the country have been protesting against these bills – The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill.

“Farm bill is not doing anything for the landless farmers like us. The bill only counts land-owning farmers. It has nothing for me. The person I work for told me that the mandis (crop markets) would be dominated by private companies. I wonder if the government remembers that landless ones like us also exist,” says Sunil Yadav, a landless farmer from Bihar.

Covid19 pandemic management

Bihar, that has recorded more than 180,000 Covid-19 infections and about 1,000 deaths, is home to more than 72 million registered voters. The healthcare in Bihar will be under the lens. Conscious of it, the ruling dispensation brought about quick changes in the health department to get things right and it now has statistics under control with consistently falling fatality rates and an increase in testing for the disease.

“Bihar for a long time had few cases of Covid19 but despite the lockdowns, cases have increased manifold in the state. It only shows that Bihar was not conducting enough tests in the few first few months. Also, I have seen that even people in essential services don’t have proper PPE kits. I hope the people remember all these things when they go to the polling booth to vote,” Diwakar adds.

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