India holds first state election during pandemic and jobs, not communal issues, take top billing

The third phase of voting is taking place on Nov 7 for the 243-seat state assembly. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - Jobs have emerged as a key issue in the election in the Indian state of Bihar, the first such poll during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is expected to be a test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the junior partner in the state's governing alliance.

The third phase of voting is taking place on Saturday (Nov 7) for the 243-seat state assembly.

Bihar was the worst impacted by a stringent lockdown imposed in March to prevent the spread of Covid-19, with hundreds of thousands of migrant workers around the country, many of them Biharis, losing their jobs and making a desperate dash to reach home, triggering a humanitarian crisis.

"Bihar is the first election after the pandemic. For the first time, we are seeing that secularism and communalism is not a dominant issue. Material issues about jobs, employment, health security, financial security and these are some of the things which are having a larger bearing on the electoral calculation of voters," said Professor Sajjan Kumar, a Delhi-based political analyst.

He added that Bihar could turn out to be a harbinger for voters around the country in the near future.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), an opposition party, has promised one million jobs if elected, triggering other employment-related promises from other parties.

Bihar, where 70 million people are eligible to vote, is one of India's poorest states but has an impact on national politics due to its vast population.

Along with a clutch of other poorer states, Bihar has a young population and the latest poll has seen a new crop of younger leaders on the scene like Mr Tejashwi Yadav, 30, of the RJD and Mr Chirag Paswan, 38 of Lok Janshakti Party, another local party.

Both have taken over the parties built up by their fathers.

"The new-age politicians Tejashwi Yadav, and Chirag Paswan have emerged as the game changers in Bihar 2020 elections. Tejashwi led RJD's evolution from a "samajik nyay" (social justice) party to one whose slogan is also "arthik nyay" (economic justice), and this has resonated among the poor," said Professor Ashwani Kumar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and author of Community Warriors: State, Peasants And Caste Armies In Bihar.

"This unexpected subaltern youth insurgency will potentially impact the national politics as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh's populations have the lowest-median ages or youngest population in the country while Kerala and Tamil Nadu have the highest median age, according to census data. Therefore, the next-generation of young political leaders will come from places like Bihar," he added.

Bihar's current chief minister is Mr Nitish Kumar, the leader of the Janata Dal U, which is ruling the state in an alliance with the BJP.

They are being challenged by a coalition of regional parties and the Congress.

Going into the polls, the JDU-BJP alliance was strong but criticism directed at the chief minister for poor governance by an erstwhile ally, the Lok Janshakti Party, has weakened the alliance.

On the ground, there is anger against Mr Kumar for failing to protect the migrant workers and he has also had to deal with growing anti-incumbency sentiment. He has been in office for three terms, or 15 years.

An opinion poll, by Times Now and Cvoter, has given the ruling alliance the edge, finding that it would take 147 of the 243 seats in the legislative assembly. Opinion polls can be unreliable in India.

A win in Bihar would reverse a recent string of defeats for the BJP in state elections over the last four years.

The party, which stormed back to power in a general election last year largely because of Mr Modi's popularity, is facing several tough state polls in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu next year where regional parties have the upper hand.

"Mr Modi's popularity remains across categories. The only problem is in state elections, he may not be able to convert popularity for votes. There is a clear distinction (in people's mind) that for national elections it's a vote for Modi," said Mr Kumar.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.