The 2020 Bihar Legislative Assembly elections, conducted in November, were the first major Indian elections and one of the largest elections conducted after the COVID-19 pandemic. In these times, organizing free and fair elections, with an estimated 11.5 million voters, in one of the most impoverished Indian states, presented a major challenge.
Bihar is the third most populous Indian state. It is one of the most under-developed states, not only having a regressive socio-economic status but also consistently underperforming on several metrics, including health and education, with a 70.9% literacy rate.
In the previous elections, the Mahagathbandhan defeated the National Democratic Alliance, and governed for 2 years, after which the Janata Dal (United) party withdrew from the Mahagathbandhan and joined the NDA, with Nitish Kumar remaining as the chief minister.
The 2020 Bihar Elections faced a host of challenges, the most notable being the COVID-19 pandemic. It resulted in a humanitarian crisis, with millions of migrant workers returning to their homes from cities due to a lack of work (Bihar, being one of the largest providers of migrant labourer’s). The government was blamed for the loss of jobs and an unplanned lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic. As both the Centre and the State of Bihar is governed by the BJP (the leader of the NDA), this resulted in significant anti-NDA sentiments in the state.
The 2020 farm bills passed by the Parliament, and the subsequent protests against them, were also expected to shape the elections. The 2019 Bihar floods were another hurdle, with opposition parties alleging politicizing of flood relief efforts. The death of Ram Vilas Paswan, the party leader of Lok Janshakti Party, too had a significant impact on the elections.
The Election Commission of India announced the dates of elections on 25th September 2020, with polls concluding on 7th November and counting of votes on 10th November.
During the campaigning, the Mahagathbandhan consisted of the UPA members, INC and Rashtriya Janata Dal, as well as the Communist parties, while the NDA consisted of the BJP, Hindustani Awam Morcha, the Vikasheel Insan Party, and the JD(U).
Approximately 60 parties contested for 243 constituencies, over 3 phases of voting, the main contest being between the two alliances.
In light of the pandemic, voters per polling booth was reduced to 1000, accompanied by an increase of 1 hour in polling time. The Election Commission of India arranged lakhs of units of hand sanitizers, masks, PPE kits, face shields, and single use gloves. Postal ballots facility was extended to all electors above 80 and people quarantined or hospitalized due to COVID19, in efforts to ensure election sanctity. Temperature checks and masks were mandated. Electors getting high temperatures were treated as suspect cases of COVID19, who were certified and asked to return at the end of the day, to vote in the last hour, where additional protective measures were taken. Precautions contributed to a 57.05% voter turnout, 0.39% higher than 2015. However, two major incidents occurred during the voting process, the first in Gaya district where three improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were located and diffused on 27th October. Another two IEDs were diffused in Aurangabad district, sending an alert to all areas affected by the Maoist insurgency.
The NDA secured 125 seats, the Mahagathbandhan winning 110 seats. Although RJD emerged as the single largest party, underperformance by the INC and reduced seats for the RJD itself contributed to NDA’s win.
The Incumbent Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, filed his resignation to the Governor on 13th November 2020. After the NDA meeting on 15th November, Nitish Kumar was re-elected leader of the NDA and the Chief Minister of Bihar, marking his 4th term in the post. The results were surprising since the Exit polls had predicted a substantial victory for the Mahagathbandhan. Analysts blame the Congress’ failure in courting the Lok Janshakti Party, whose decision to not contest seats against the BJP, but rather the JDU resulted in voter division, contributing to the BJP’s better than predicted performance.
~ Arnav Praneet