India: local elections under the sign of the coronavirus in Bihar

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Local elections begin Wednesday in the state of Bihar (northern India), populated by 125 million inhabitants, making it one of the main polls organized in the world since the start of the pandemic.

The frenzied campaign made people forget all social distancing in the rival meetings which gathered tens of thousands of people and where almost no mask was visible.

These are the first elections in India since the strict lockdown, imposed in March by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which suddenly deprived millions of migrant workers, many from Bihar, of work and resources. Many have taken days or even weeks to walk back to their villages from the big cities.

The vote is planned in three phases: that of Wednesday, then November 3 and 7, with counting of the votes on November 10.

Bihar, one of the poorest states in the country, has been ruled for more than ten years by a coalition between Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the regional Janta Dal United party ( JDU).


But polls point to discontent with outgoing officials, especially the local chief executive – chief minister – Nitish Kumar (JDU), in power for most of the past fifteen years. He is criticized for not having done enough against poverty.

Mr. Kumar’s unpopularity increased during the lockdown with the return of hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers.

“There has been a total lack of development for the last fifteen years under the chief minister,” Mohan Guruswamy of the think tank Center for Policy Alternatives told AFP.

Both employment and the cost of living are major themes in the poll. The national government is even working to control the price of onions, a staple in Indian cuisine, hit by a shortage after heavy rains damaged crops.

In the opposition, the regional formation Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which remains marked by accusations of corruption, is allied with the Congress party and promises to support unemployed youth and create thousands of new jobs for local civil servants.

The ruling coalition in Bihar relies heavily on Mr. Modi’s continued popularity in the state. He organized several meetings and promised to speed up development projects if she retains power.

Mr. Modi’s Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, for her part promised at a meeting that “everyone in Bihar will get a free vaccine” against the coronavirus if the coalition wins.

The results of the poll remain uncertain, political strategist Amitabh Tiwari told AFP, as voters must balance their disappointment with Mr. Kumar against their desire to elect a local government backed by the BJP, in a climate of growing dependence on national aid to deal with the consequences of the coronavirus.

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