10/29/2020, 15.08
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Millions of voters to pick Bihar’s next Legislative Assembly with COVID-19 and poverty in the background

More than 70 million voters are called to vote in three phases with official results announced on 10 November. The ruling coalition promises free vaccines for all in case of victory. The opposition focuses on jobs in one of India’s poorest states, badly affected by lockdowns. Distrust is strong among voters.

Delhi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Millions of people began voting in Bihar (north-eastern India), one of the country’s poorest states, to elect the Members of its Legislative Assembly with the COVID-19 pandemic raging on.

The vote represents a challenge to the ruling coalition in a state of 124 million people sharply divided along caste lines. More than 70 million voters are eligible to fill 243 seats in the local legislature in a three-phase process to limit large gatherings and risks associated with the novel coronavirus.

The first round of voting for 71 seats was held yesterday with a turnout of about 54.3 per cent, which is higher than the 53.5 per cent recorded in 2019 Lok Sabha (Union lower house) election, and this despite the pandemic and the fear of infection.

The second round for 94 seats is set for 3 November 2020 whilst the third and final will take place on 7 November for the remaining 78 lawmakers. Election results will be announced on 10 November 2020.

Bihar is India’s third most populous state with a poverty rate of around 40 per cent. Despite fears associated with the novel coronavirus, polling stations saw long queues and many voters ignored government regulations requiring the use of masks and social distancing.

“I am a little afraid because corona 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.”

India is currently reporting 40,000 to 50,000 new cases a day will soon top eight million cases in total. For the Asian country, the Bihar election is the first vote since a general lockdown was imposed in March.

This has badly affected the poor and accentuated social divisions. Many migrant workers employed in large cities come from the state of Bihar. As a result of the lockdown to contain the virus, they were forced to return to their villages of origin with the prospect of long-term loss of income.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has governed the state for more than a decade in a coalition with a regional party, the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), whose leader, Nitish Kumar, has been the state’s chief minister for 15 years, except for a brief interlude in 2014-2015.

During the election campaign, political leaders promised free vaccines for each resident in case of victory. However, public opinion polls show that the electorate is fed up, tired of false promises and the widespread poverty.

The main opposition party is the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which has been weakened by several cases of corruption over the years. In recent weeks, its leaders have focused on the economy and employment, promising jobs, to attract a largely disheartened electorate.

“Here nothing changes, and there is no development,” said farmer Vinod Paswan “And now with corona, all the schools are shut. We are poor and uneducated; how can we teach our children?” he bemoaned.

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