Voting for Bihar assembly elections will be held in three phases on October 28, November 3 and November 7 in one of the biggest elections globally during the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by counting of votes on November 10, the Election Commission announced on Friday.
The ruling National Democratic Alliance in the politically-crucial state will face a challenge from the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance, though uncertainty still prevails over the composition of the two main political blocs and about a number of smaller parties as to which way they will go in this battle of alliances.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party-Janata Dal(United) alliance and the Congress-RJD combine are firmly in place, a key NDA member Lok Janshakti Party and some opposition parties like former Union minister Upendra Kushwaha-headed Rashtriya Lok Samata Party have kept their options open.
The announcement of dates by the Election Commission is likely to speed up the process of political realignment in the coming days.
In the outgoing assembly, the RJD has 80 members while the JD-U has 69.
The BJP has 54 seats, Congress has 25, while the remaining seats in the 243-member assembly are held by other parties.
The NDA has already announced that JD-U president and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar will be its face for the top job in the state, which has an estimated 7.29 crore voters.
The BJP said it is fully prepared for the elections and exuded confidence that it will form the government with a three-fourth majority, while Kumar and his party also welcomed the election dates and said it was confident of a win.
The RJD, on the other hand, asserted that people of the state have made up their mind for a change of government.
Political activities have already intensified in the state with all major parties having stepped up their efforts in the last few months, despite the pandemic situation, while a number of projects have been announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself for the state in recent weeks.
Announcing the poll schedule for the 243-member Bihar assembly, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said voting will begin as usual at 7 am but the period will be extended by one hour until 6 pm, except in the Left Wing Extremism affected areas, so that COVID-19 patients can vote in the last hour of the day.
"The world has changed significantly since the last major election in our country, which was held for Delhi assembly, and the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a new normal in every aspect of our life.
"Bihar assembly polls will be one of the biggest elections globally to be held during prevailing COVID-19 situation," Arora said.
He also said special protocols have been readied for voters who are COVID-positive patients. Besides, all voters will need to wear face masks and pass through thermal scanners at polling booths, where they will also be given hand gloves before they cast their votes.
Some parties had demanded deferring the polls due to the pandemic, but Arora said special arrangements have been made for holding the elections during such difficult times.
Under the new guidelines, parties will need to ensure that social distancing norms are followed at public gatherings during the poll campaign.
The number of people accompanying a candidate for submission of nomination has been restricted to two, while door-to-door campaigns can have a maximum of five people including the candidate.
For roadshows, the convoy of vehicles would need to be broken after every five vehicles, instead of 10 vehicles earlier.
Announcing the poll schedule at a press conference here, Arora said the number of phases for 243-member Bihar assembly polls has been reduced to three, from five last time, keeping in mind security arrangements and festive season, among other factors.
Voting for the first phase on October 28 will cover 71 assembly constituencies, while the second-phase voting on November 3 will cover 94 seats. The third phase of voting on November 7 will cover 78 assembly seats.
Counting of votes for all seats will take place on November 10.
According to the Election Commission, 7 lakh hand sanitisers, 46 lakh masks, 6 lakh PPE kits, 6.7 lakh face shields and 23 lakh pairs of hand gloves have been arranged for Bihar polls.
To ensure voters are not infected with the virus while using the electronic voting machine and signing the register at the polling station, 7.2 crore single-use gloves have also been arranged. Face masks would also be kept handy at polling stations for voters who turn up without wearing one.
The poll panel has also extended the option of postal ballot for electors who are marked as persons with disabilities and those above 80 years.
Electors who are COVID-19 positive or are suspected of having the infection and in quarantine at home or at an institution can also exercise the postal ballot option.
An official explained that this postal ballot facility is different from the one extended to service voters.
Here, those willing to use the facility have to fill up a form. Officials then carry the ballot to the residence of such voters and videograph the process to ensure transparency.
COVID-19 patients who are quarantined will be allowed to cast their vote at the last hour of the poll day at their respective polling stations, under the supervision of health authorities.
Arora further said anyone using social media for mischievous purposes, such as for flaring communal tension, during elections will have to face consequences, while hate speech will be also dealt with harshly by the Election Commission.
Keeping in mind distancing norms, the EC has reduced the number of voters per polling station to 1,000 instead of 1,500, resulting in an increase in the number of polling stations.
While in 2015 elections, the state had 65,367 polling stations, the number now stands at 1,06,526, an increase of 62.96 per cent.
The notification for the first phase of Bihar assembly elections would be issued on October 1, while the last date of nominations would be October 8 and withdrawal of candidature can be done till October 12.
For the second phase, notification would be issued on October 9, nominations can be filed till October 16 and candidature can be withdrawn till October 19.
The third-phase notification would be issued on October 13, the last date of nominations would be October 20 and the last date for candidature withdrawal has been fixed October 23.
Arora further said there are about 18.87 lakh migrants across 38 districts of Bihar, out of which 16.6 lakh are eligible to vote.
While 13.93 lakh already had their names on the electoral rolls, 2.3 lakh more have been registered and the process is continuing, he added.