By Tuesday over six lakh registered migrant workers had returned to Bihar in shramik special trains and 10 lakh more are expected to return home via trains in the next ten days, a half page advertisement issued by Nitish Kumar government in various news dailies said.
The ad went on to give details of measures taken by the state for the safe transit of migrant workers. The numbers, however, would go further up if unregistered persons entering the state quietly by trucks and buses and many of them on foot are taken into account.
Reports on sample taken from migrant workers who returned from Delhi say that around 26 percent of them tested coronavirus positive " of the 835 samples tested till two days ago, 218 were positive.
Though the number of coronavirus positive cases among those returning from other states is less, that's hardly a consolation. As it is, testing is already very low in Bihar. It is anybody's guess how the situation may pan out from here.
In these times of crisis, stakes are very high for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who runs the government in alliance with the BJP. The political cost of the way the Covid-19 situation is managed in the state, including the return of migrants and their consequent wellbeing is much higher for him than any of his counterparts in any part of the country.
He has to face state Assembly election soon and thus has to ensure that all his moves are politically correct. It goes without saying that given the current circumstances, maintaining that balance is hugely difficult. But then he has been the Chief Minister of Bihar since 2005 (except for a brief period between 2014 an 2015), but this time around, the challenge is stiff.
Before going into the challenge that Nitish faces, the key question is whether or not the state Assembly elections would be held on time. And if so, how would they be conducted?
Let's consider this. Five years ago the Election Commission had announced Bihar Assembly elections on 9 September and first phase of election was held on 12 October while the last phase was held on 5 November. Going by the 2015 schedule, the election process should start in the state in the next three-and-half months, which gives the commission and the political parties around 100 days time. But seeing the way elections, campaigning and polling has been done in the country in the past, is the situation conducive for polls?
Elections for several seats of the Bihar Legislative Council including some from graduate and teachers constituencies are overdue. The election for these vacant seats should have taken place last month, but due to the coronavirus-induced national lockdown and social distancing norms in force, the Election Commission has yet not notified these elections.
The election for the Legislative Council will have to be held, not just because it's due for over a month, but also because that will provide some kind of model test case under which state assembly elections could be held later.
The possibility of postponing the election was ruled out by ruling dispensation sources. In any case, such a situation would bring out a great deal of constitutional issues, which any government at the Centre, least of all the Modi government would try to avoid.
Bihar deputy chief minister and the senior most BJP leader in the state, Sushil Modi has talked about an entirely different possibility, the way elections could be held.
He believes that helicopter hopping, a cherished modern day campaign method for faster reach by senior leaders would be a thing of the past. So would be big public rallies. Unusual times brining unusual response. And for the first time, perhaps India could see an election campaign without public rallies, retrofitted bus yatras and helicopters. This effectively means that leaders of the rival political parties would be left without conventional modes of campaigning, thus lesser access and ability to influence the electorate in the run-up to the election.
Conversely, the voters would have all the time in the world to quietly decide on his polling preference. The leaders would have to use new technological tools to take their message to the masses.
Not only the campaigning style would change but the way voting would be done could change as well. Could there be online voting. Does everybody have the access to the new technological tools? Can the Election Commission verify that the online data was not hacked or only the genuine voters voted? These are questions which would be answered in due course, perhaps by September when the Election Commission should be announcing the poll schedule and poll process.
Nitish Kumar's initial response on bringing back migrants, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the national lockdown and later when Uttar Pradesh chief Minister Yogi Adityanath went the extra mile to bring home thousands of UP students stranded in Kota (famed for IIT and medical entrance exam coaching) had not gone well with the people.
the JD(U) chief has tried to salvage the damage in past two weeks, since the time shramik special trains started running and also gone aggressive on transferring money in the accounts of over two and half million poor Biharis who have registered on the designated state government portal.
There is no denying the fact that the coming Assembly election would be a tough one for Nitish, perhaps the toughest ever. But two things could go in his favour. First, there is no worthwhile alternative to him in the state. RJD chief Lalu Yadav as a convict is serving his term in jail and his younger son Tejashwi Yadav has not come off the mark. His elder son is seen more as a nuisance even among the RJD workers than a leader. The Congress too has no standing in the state.
The second thing that weighs things significantly in favour of Nitish Kumar and the ruling NDA is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's appeal. That would be a huge blessing for the JD(U)-BJP combine in the upcoming Assembly election in Bihar.