India’s first key elections during the coronavirus pandemic has begun in the eastern state of Bihar, with physical distancing regulations and temperature checks outside election booths.
Voters will elect the 243-member Bihar legislative assembly in three phases, starting Wednesday, with results to be declared on November 10.
Holding safe elections has been a challenge for India’s Election Commission as the virus continues to spread. The country has recorded nearly eight million COVID-19 cases and more than 120,000 deaths.
Most voters were wearing masks and officials provided gloves as they cast their ballot in one of India’s poorest states, home to 125 million people, as it holds the world’s biggest election since the pandemic erupted.
Bihar has an electoral roll of more than 72 million voters, which is more than the population of France or Britain. The last elections in 2015 saw a turnout of about 58 percent.
More than 60 countries around the world have been postponing local and national elections, according to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
The Election Commission has limited door-to-door campaigning groups to three people and asked district administrations to enforce physical distancing and limit crowds at campaign rallies.
But days into the staggered elections, most rules were flouted as candidates competed to pull the biggest crowds, raising fears of a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Three-time chief minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) is seeking re-election at the head of an alliance that includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Its main rival is another alliance of the regional Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Indian National Congress and two left parties.
Jobs, pandemic, onion prices dominate polls
The poll is the first in India since Modi imposed a strict coronavirus lockdown in late March that led to millions of poor migrant workers, many from Bihar, losing their jobs. Some had to walk for days or weeks to get back home.
Opinion polls indicate disquiet with the incumbent regime, particularly Nitish Kumar, who has been in power for most of the past 15 years, over perceptions he has not done enough to lift the state out of poverty.
Kumar’s unpopularity has been further exacerbated by the lockdown, with hundreds of thousands of workers who returned home from other states still unable to find work in Bihar.
“There’s been a lack of any development over the last 15 years under this [state] chief minister,” Mohan Guruswamy from the Centre for Policy Alternatives think-tank told AFP news agency.
Unemployment and the cost of living have been significant election issues, and the national government is also striving to keep the prices of onions – a key ingredient in Indian cuisine – in check amid a shortage after heavy rains damaged crops.
New Delhi wants to be seen as doing everything within its power to control the price of the staple, a sensitive subject across South Asia, where shortages can trigger widespread discontent with political ramifications.
The opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal has promised to support unemployed youth and create thousands of new state government jobs.
Bihar’s ruling alliance has banked heavily on Modi, who remains popular in the state. He has held several rallies and promised to expedite development projects if the alliance is returned to power.
Releasing the BJP’s poll manifesto last week, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also vowed that “everyone in Bihar will get a vaccine for free” if voters back the coalition.