After the poll bugle was sounded in Bihar, the core concern of the coronavirus pandemic has been lost amid the cacophony of elections. As the poll pitch gets shriller, the distress caused by the pandemic is fast turning redundant for politicians and political parties.
While the focus of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is on grabbing power again, the opposition, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress, are busy in manoeuverings to trounce the present dispensation led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
Hundreds of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the crisis of migrant labourers have taken a backseat as the poll narratives swing from promises of development to personal attacks, making the entire election campaign murkier.
The slogans have been tweaked in such a manner that they do not reflect the public mood and anger on the unprecedented crisis faced by the people due to the pandemic but are fashioned to hit the rivals with below the belt remarks in the battle of wits and perception.
Kumar is basking in the glory of the praise showered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his ‘good work’, with huge posters on main thoroughfares of the state capital. The ruling dispensation is trying to project the development-oriented face of Kumar and PM Modi to entice the voters.
Hoardings with slogans like ‘Pura Bihar, Ek Parivar’ (The entire Bihar is our family) and ‘Nyay ke saath Tarakki, Nitish ki baat pakki’ (Nitish is sure to return for his development with justice efforts) dot the entire length and breadth of the state. Kumar has also pledged to launch ‘Saat Nischay -2’ (Seven Resolves -2) in his next term with focus on women empowerment, urban and rural sanitation and irrigation to every farmland if voted to power again.
On the other hand, the JD(U) has erected posters sharpening its attack on Lalu Prasad and his family. It describes Lalu’s family as ‘the burden on Bihar’ and shows Lalu Prasad as a prisoner. In another hoarding, a bus is shown as ‘Loot Express’ with Lalu Prasad and Tejashwi Yadav standing atop it while former chief minister Rabri Devi, elder son Tej Pratap Yadav and daughter Misa Bharti are seated inside the bus.
Catchy slogans and catchphrases are integral to elections as they encapsulate the vision of a political party and communicate the party's core standpoint to the people. These poll narratives have shaped the course of the elections and created a stir, changing the mood of the people in favour or against any political party or combination.
But the core issues that had cropped up during the coronavirus crisis such as healthcare system and employment to workers so that they are not forced to migrate to other states in search of livelihood have not found a place in the poll agenda of political parties.
The second part of Seven Resolves by Kumar only promises that a separate skill and entrepreneurship department would be set up in Bihar to hone technical skill of youth and brighten their job prospects and all Industrial Training Institutes and polytechnic colleges would be brought under its purview.
Kumar had claimed on several occasions after completion of his first term that the migration of labourers from Bihar to other states has come down by over 25 per cent because of increased agriculture activities, assured employment under MNREGA and large-scale development work being undertaken by the state government in infrastructure sector which is occupying the workforce at home itself.
The then labour minister Janardan Singh Sigriwal, now MP, had quoted a survey to assert that outflow of labourers slid to extent that the bicycle industry in Ludhiana faced 50 per cent shortage of migrant labourers from Bihar. Even efforts of industrialists to lure labourers to Ludhiana with attractive incentives and freebies, viz. mobiles, cycles, gas connection, etc. have failed to have the desired results, the minister had said.
But it has been discovered during this coronavirus crisis that lakhs of migrant labourers, who returned from different parts of the country, had moved to work in the construction and agricultural sectors in developed states such as Punjab and Haryana instead of taking up agricultural jobs back home. Their migration is cyclical as they migrate for two to three months before returning home for three to four months during festivals. During their stay outside the state, they are unable to access their social entitlements.
As things stand today, the majority of them have returned to their previous places of work as the employers have sent buses or provided them air tickets to fetch them from their villages. But those who are still in Bihar have been trapped in the caste cauldron and look at politics the way their caste men do.
On his part, Tejashwi has sought to lure voters by promising to provide 10 lakh permanent government jobs if voted to power. He assured that the proposal would be approved in the first cabinet meeting if the RJD is voted to power.
The poor healthcare system in Bihar has come as a major hindrance in providing medical care to coronavirus patients in Bihar. The inadequacy of the healthcare infrastructure was glaring as most of the community health centres in Bihar do not meet the guidelines of the Indian Public Health Standards.
While positive cases continue to pour in, the BJP, in one of its social media campaigns, claimed that Bihar is in the last phase of winning its battle against Covid-19 and it has become the first state with over 91 per cent recovery rate. It further claimed that over 50 lakh tests have been conducted in Bihar and if it continues, then Bihar will soon become a coronavirus-free state.
Though testing has improved after a sluggish start, most of the tests are conducted using rapid antigen test kits, which are known to give false negatives in a high proportion of cases. It is estimated that less number of samples are tested by the Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) technique, which is considered more reliable.
It is again social engineering and caste configurations that the different political parties are engaged in while finalising the constituencies, their number and candidates instead of addressing the core issues plaguing the state.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)