Setting the ball rolling for the first major election in the country in the time of the pandemic, the Election Commission of India announced Friday that the Bihar assembly polls will be held in three phases on October 28, November 3 and November 7, and results will be declared on November 10, the counting day.
The Model Code of Conduct stands enforced Friday onward for elections to 243 seats in the Bihar House.
While the last assembly election in the state was held over five phases, the reduction to three is one of many measures that the EC announced in view of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Polling day timings have been extended by an hour. Usually elections are held from 7 am to 5 pm, but this time votes can be cast from 7 am to 6 pm, except in booths categorised as affected by Left Wing Extremism (LWE).
Announcing the election schedule, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said for Phase 1, filing of nomination will begin on October 1 and October 8 will be the last date. Scrutiny of nominations will be on October 9, and the last date for withdrawal of candidature will be October 12. The Phase 1 polls on October 28 will be held for 71 seats in 16 districts including those affected by LWE. Votes will be cast at around 31,000 polling stations.
For Phase 2, nominations will begin on October 9 with October 16 as the last date for filing. Scrutiny will be done on October 17, and withdrawal of candidature will be allowed until October 19. Phase 2 votes will be cast on November 3 for 94 seats in 17 districts. There will be around 42,000 polling stations.
Phase 3 will see filing of nominations from October 13 with the last date being October 20. Scrutiny will be done on October 21, and the last date for withdrawal of candidature will be October 23. Votes will be cast on November 7. This phase will see elections to 78 seats in 15 districts. Phase 3 will have 33,500 polling stations.
Arora announced a slew of measures put in place to prevent any chance of a further outbreak and said this was likely to be the biggest election exercise in the world in the context of Covid-19, and that the EC had made meticulous preparations.
In the initial stages of the pandemic, election management organisations across the world, he said, had delayed elections in the hope that Covid would ease its grip. Since it was showing no sign of abating and there were “unpredictable trajectories”, a balance had to be found between people’s “democratic right to vote and their health”.
“Everyday life must go on,” Arora said.
The first step, the CEC said, was to reduce the maximum number of voters per polling station from 1500 to 1000 per station, in view of the need to keep social distancing. This, he said, was a massive logistical exercise which would increase the number of polling stations from 65337 in 2015 to 1.06 lakh in 2020.
The Commission said that arrangements of 7 lakh hand sanitisers, 46 lakh masks, 6 lakh PPE kits, 6.7 lakh face shield and 23 lakh single-use hand gloves have been made for the Bihar elections.
Arora also said that in order to protect vulnerable populations, the facilities of “postal ballots” have been extended to those over 80 years of age. A special protocol has also been designed for those who are Covid positive, or quarantined.
He said that these voters would be allowed to vote on the last hour of polling day separately, under the guidance of local health officials. This is besides the postal ballot facility that has also been extended to them, which can also be used by physically challenged voters.
Broad guidelines to be followed during the entire election processes for all persons include making masks mandatory for all election-related activity, thermal scanning at entry, sanitizer at all locations, social distancing, the use of large halls as far as possible, and adequate number of vehicles to be mobilised for movement of polling personnel, and security personnel.
There will also be mandatory sanitization of polling stations, a day before the poll, and thermal scanners at every entry point.
“If temperature is above the set norms of MoHFW at first reading, then it will be checked twice and if it remains, then the elector shall be provided with token/certificate and will be asked to come for voting at the last hour of poll. At the last hour of poll, such electors shall be facilitated voting, strictly following Covid-19 related preventive measures,” the guidelines state.
There will also be markers to demonstrate social distancing in queue, earmarking circles for 15 to 20 people at a 6 feet distance from each other, face masks in reserve for those electors who are not carrying them and awareness posters on Covid-19 at visible locations.
Among the many changes in rules for candidates, only two persons, including the candidate, and two vehicles are allowed on nomination day, usually a day of pomp and show for candidates.
Door-to-door campaigning limits have also been set to only five people including the candidate, and while road shows are allowed, they are to only have five vehicles without a break. The EC has also allowed online filing of the nomination form and the affidavit, with candidates also being allowed to deposit their security amount online.
Arora said that he wanted to clarify that through these measures it was clear that “physical campaigning” had not been barred. Asked later about any restrictions on the number of people at rallies, he said the decision rested with the district administration, and that district collectors had already drawn up a list of venues that would be used for the purpose. He said that they had been asked to mark the ground with social distancing norms of “2 gaj ki doori.”
He said that while deciding the poll schedule, multiple factors unique to these circumstances were taken into account. These included factoring the increase in security forces, especially with the increase in polling stations, and the Covid situation, which necessitated bringing down the number of phases to three.
On questions of a suggestion to increase expenditure limits for candidates, the EC said that it was being considered by the Ministry of Law.
Arora also flagged the issue of the misuse of social media and said the Commission would keep a close eye of activities online and anyone trying to “foment communal tension” would have to face the full “law of the land”. He asked social media platforms to be vigilant and evolve monitoring systems, saying that they “would not be allowed to say they were only platform providers”.
On the issues of bye elections and MLC elections, the Commission said it had received letters from the Chief Secretaries and CEOs of certain states, in the past three to four days, requesting deferment. Arora said that these would be considered by the Commission and a decision on these elections would be announced on September 29.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is aiming for a fourth consecutive term in power, fighting in alliance with the BJP. Ally LJP has been attacking the government and the alliance is yet to declare its seat sharing arrangement.
Kumar’s JDU fought the 2015 elections in alliance with the RJD, but then chose the BJP as its partner, and the RJD now spearheads the challenge to the government.
The RJD attempt at a mahagatbandhan too faces challenges — Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM has left the coalition, and Upendra Kushwaha of RLSP is not ready to accept Tejashwi Yadav as the Chief Ministerial face of the coalition.
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