ON WEDNESDAY morning, the primary school at Maheshi village in Bhagalpur’s Sultanpur constituency seemed like a parallel universe. Around 10.45 am, a BSF officer waved Dularin Devi inside, towards two masked women, one with a hand-held thermometer, the other with a packet of gloves. She was asked to sanitise her hands, cast her vote and discard the gloves in the dustbin.
But then came the question that many voters had been asking, often mockingly, since voting began here in the first phase of the Bihar assembly polls — the first election in the country since the Covid outbreak. “Bas iss school mein hi corona hai? Bahar bazaar mein toh bheed hai (Does the coronavirus exist only inside this school? There is a crowd in the market outside),” Devi, 28, said.
As 71 seats went to polls Wednesday with provisional figures marking a turnout of 54.26 per cent — marginally lower than 54.75 per cent for the same seats last time — there is a surreal sense of disbelief about Covid in Bihar’s villages.
At the polling booths, there were measures in place to keep the virus at bay. But amid intermittent shouts for voters to keep distance, the bizarre disconnect was visible even inside. Three of the officers inside the booth at Maheshi had strung their masks around their necks, until they spotted a camera.
About 27 km away, at Bariyarpur village in Munger district, masks were a rare sight as security personnel asked voters to wrap their sarees or gamchas around their faces. Inside the booth at a primary school, there was social distancing. At the gate though, the voters stood cheek by jowl. “If they are creating space inside, they should ensure distancing outside, too,” said Rameshwar Prasad, 48, who was waiting to vote.
The architecture of each booth was the same. A shamiana at the entrance and polling agents, unmasked mostly, sitting a little distance away. And at the gate, two-four women officials, mostly Asha and Anganwadi workers, on duty, holding thermometers and single-use gloves. As for the voters, once their fingers were inked, they threw the gloves outside in open bins, some on the ground outside. In some booths, masks were handed out, too.
What did seem to work though for the Election Commission, was the number of booths. With a stipulated limit of 1,000 people per booth, down from 1500, there were no long queues across the districts of Bhagalpur, Munger and Lakhisarai. In Munger town, Ranjan Tiwari walked up to the Middle School in Puraniganj at 1 pm, not to vote, but to see if there was a crowd. “I have aged parents. I wanted to see if they could come. There is nobody here. I will bring them quickly,” he said.
By 3 pm, fatigue seemed to have set in over even basic preventive steps. At Mano Rampur village in Lakhisarai, the gates of Shri Govind Higher Secondary School were wide open, and women officials meant to check temperature and hand over gloves were engaged in a discussion among themselves. There was no attempt to check temperature or issue gloves, and voters went in without protest. “The elections are happening, rallies are taking place, markets are open, so will corona catch us in the voting booth?” asked a voter.
In Munger, there were other elements in play, too. Every shop in town had their shutters down to protest the clash between the administration and Durga devotees on Monday night that left a 22-year-old dead. “People are not coming out as they used to,” said a BJP poll booth agent. At 5 pm, Munger’s turnout was the lowest of 16 districts at 43.64 per cent.
In Delhi, meanwhile, the voting percentage was being watched closely amid apprehensions among political parties over the pandemic. But Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said the turnout vindicated the panel’s decision to hold the elections on time. “I want to thank the voters who came out to vote in these extraordinary circumstances, the political entities for conducting themselves with maturity, and our election machinery on the ground for ensuring all precautions are taken,” Arora said.
(With Ritika Chopra in New Delhi)
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