Millions of Indians turned out to cast ballots in a state election on Wednesday 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 on Thursday.
“I am a little afraid because corona(virus) is not a small disease,” said Nidhi Kumari, a 21-year-old student queuing up to vote on the outskirts of the state capital Patna.
“But there are precautions at polling booths. They are giving sanitisers and gloves.”
Polls closed one hour later at 6:00 pm local time (1230 GMT) compared to previous elections, to encourage less crowding at booths.
Voting has also been split across three days — Wednesday, November 3 and November 7.
Coronavirus patients will be allowed to cast a ballot under the supervision of the health authorities.
– Long queues, few masks –
Modi — who held several rallies across the state in the run-up to the polls — appealed to voters Wednesday “to take all Covid precautions while participating in this festival of democracy”.
But at two booths visited by AFP, there were long queues of voters lined up heel-to-toe, and few masks in sight.
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 an alliance of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist BJP and the regional Janta Dal United party (JDU) 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.
Kumar’s unpopularity has been further exacerbated by the lockdown, with hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who fled cities like Mumbai or Delhi because of the virus — many on foot — still unable to find jobs in Bihar.
“Here nothing changes, and there is no development. And now with corona(virus), all the schools are shut. We are poor and uneducated, how can we teach our children?” farmer Vinod Paswan told AFP.
“Our village has a lot of problems, we want proper roads and healthcare facilities,” added 50-year-old housewife Madhuri Sinha.
Unemployment and the cost of living have been major election issues, with the national government also striving to keep the price 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.
Bihar’s ruling alliance has banked heavily on Modi, who remains popular in the state. He has promised to expedite development projects if the alliance is returned to power, a message he reiterated on Wednesday.