By: Pramod Thomas
MILLIONS of Indians turned out to cast ballots in a state election Wednesday(28) in the world’s biggest vote since the coronavirus emerged, with booths packed out and many ignoring government advice on wearing masks and social distancing.
Some 70 million people are eligible to vote in Bihar, an impoverished eastern state governed by an alliance that includes prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has promised a free vaccine for every person in the state if it wins.
The election comes as India, the world’s second most-infected nation, records between 40,000 and 50,000 new cases each day and looks set to surpass the eight million mark.
“I am a little afraid because corona(virus) is not a small disease,” said Nidhi Kumari, a 21-year-old student queueing up to vote in the outskirts of the state capital Patna.
“But there are precautions at polling booths. They are giving sanitisers and gloves.”
Voting in Bihar has been split across three days — Wednesday, November 3 and November 7 — to reduce crowding at booths.
Coronavirus patients will be allowed to cast a ballot under the supervision of the health authorities.
Modi has urged voters “to take all Covid precautions while participating in this festival of democracy”.
Authorities have struggled to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing during rallies across the state that have attracted tens of thousands of people.
The poll is the first in India since Modi imposed the world’s biggest lockdown in late March that forced millions of poor migrant workers, many from Bihar, out of their jobs in cities.
The state, one of India’s poorest, has been ruled by BJP and the regional Janta Dal United party for over a decade.
But opinion polls indicate disquiet with the incumbent regime, particularly chief minister Nitish Kumar from the JDU, 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.
Unemployment and the cost of living have been major election issues, with the national government also striving to keep the prices of onions — a key ingredient in Indian cuisine — in check amid a shortage after heavy rains damaged crops.
The main opposition regional Rashtriya Janata Dal party, which remains tainted by past corruption allegations and is in an alliance with the national Congress party, has meanwhile promised to support unemployed youth and create thousands of new state government jobs.