India’s Modi facing tough battle in first vote since pandemic

Voters queue up to cast their ballots during Bihar state elections in Thakurganj, India, on Nov 7, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, which is in coalition with the ruling alliance in Bihar, is fighting a tough battle to retain control of the eastern state as vote counting began on Tuesday (Nov 10).

The vote tally has been slowed down considerably because of Covid-19 protocols in place, and no clear verdict had emerged by late Tuesday afternoon.

Trends show the ruling coalition, that includes Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, pulling ahead in some 127 seats.

The opposition grouping, led by the charismatic 31-year-old politician Tejashwi Yadav was leading in 106 seats in the 243-member state assembly.

Most exit polls have shown citizens rejecting the ruling coalition in favor of the opposition alliance.

About 25 per cent of the votes polled have been counted so far, according to Election Commission officials in New Delhi.

It's not immediately clear when a final vote count will be available.

Bihar is India's poorest state, but with a population larger than any nation in the European Union, it sends 40 lawmakers to federal parliament, giving it outsize political importance.

Losing the state amid soaring unemployment and an economy experiencing the sharpest dive in decades will be a setback for Mr Modi, who invested a lot of political capital in the campaign.

The state is currently governed by Mr Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) party, who has ruled for three straight terms.

But in the face of an anti-incumbency wave, Mr Modi was the main campaigner, addressing more than a dozen rallies across the province despite pandemic restrictions.

His Bharatiya Janata Party entered an alliance with Mr Kumar's party after the last elections in 2015.

A loss is likely to turn attention to Mr Modi's policies - including setting in motion the world's strictest virus lockdown - and embolden the opposition to question his handling of India's pandemic.

The stay-at-home order and the job losses it triggered led to an exodus of poor migrant workers, over 1.5 million from Bihar alone, from India's big cities.

With more than 8.5 million cases, India's virus infections trail only the US.

The spotlight is now on Mr Yadav, the youthful leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal party and the chief ministerial candidate of the opposition alliance.

A one-time cricketer and the son of a former chief minister, Mr Yadav sought to win over younger voters with the promise of a million government jobs.

Bihar's unemployment rate has climbed to 12 per cent - almost double that of the national average of 6.7 per cent - since the lockdown.

"A loss will also put pressure on the Centre to concentrate more on populist policies that give a fillip to job creation," said Mr Ajay Bodke, chief executive officer for portfolio management services at Prabhudas Lilladher Pvt.

"With a massive shortfall in tax revenues and divestment proceeds due to economic slowdown as a result of Covid-19 pandemic, the government needs to expedite structural reforms hobbling medium-term growth, which are bound to create backlash among sections of society."

The BJP has been facing tougher-than-expected battles in the state polls that have followed Mr Modi's sweeping victory to a second term in office in May 2019.

Its alliance in Maharashtra, India's wealthiest state, fell apart soon after polls there last year.

It lost power in Rajasthan and Jharkhand and had to cobble together a new coalition in the northern Haryana state.

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