Capitals a concern

Print edition : July 17, 2020

Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressing the Bihar “jansamvaad” rally via videoconferencing from the BJP headquarters in New Delhi on June 7. Photo: Arun Sharma/PTI

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar with the National Democratic Alliance candidates for the Legislative Council elections after they filed their nomination papers and supporters, at the Bihar Vidhan Sabha in Patna on June 25. Photo: PTI

A medic takes a swab sample for COVID-19 testing in Ranchi on May 16. Jharkhand has so far tested 1,28,214 samples. Photo: PTI

Although Bihar is still grappling with an increasing number of coronavirus cases, the public discourse has veered away from the disease to politics as the Assembly election nears. Jharkhand, on the other hand, has made dramatic progress in tackling the pandemic.

WHETHER it was Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressing a virtual rally in Bihar on June 7 extolling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat programme or the Prime Minister himself congratulating the people of Bihar on June 20 on the valour of the Bihar Regiment for its valiant fight with Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley, Ladakh, the public discourse in Bihar is no longer about the coronavirus; it is politics as usual. This, despite the fact that the pandemic continues to rage in the State. Irrespective of the fact that the Modi-Shah speeches were touted as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) routine “jansamvaad” programmes, the message was clear. The election bugle had been sounded. The BJP programme was quickly followed by virtual meetings addressed by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the main opposition party in the State, too hit the road to connect with people. The Assembly election is scheduled for October-November.

Jharkhand, Bihar’s younger sibling, on the other hand, has achieved the distinction of successfully containing the spread of the pandemic. According to the figures the Jharkhand government Health Department released, while the doubling rate on June 3 was 9.48 days, on June 21 it was 24.22 days. The growth rate for the disease has also slowed down: While the weekly growth rate in early June was 7.58 per cent, on June 21 it was down to only 2.9 per cent. The number of positive cases per thousand was 31 in early June and fell to 25 on June 23. The percentage of positive cases has also gone down: from 3.11 per cent in the period from June 3 to10, it went down to 2.7 per cent between June 10 and 17 and to 2.5 per cent between June 17 and 22.

According to officials of the State Health Department, the State recorded a recovery rate of 71 per cent, against the national average of 53 per cent. As of June 25, the State had a total of 2,219 cases of infection, of which 1,575 had recovered. Significantly enough, 1,841 of the infected persons were migrant workers who had returned from other parts of India. The number of deaths too has been low in the State, only 13, and these were patients who had co-morbidities, said State officials.

“This has been possible because anticipating a spike in the number of cases with the return of migrants, we had made arrangements for their screening, quarantining, testing and treatment. Fortunately, people in villages too have become so aware that they ensured quarantining and isolation of those who returned from outside, which helped in containing the spread,” said a senior official. The State has so far tested 1,28,214 samples.

According to senior government officials, there are four districts in the State that have become completely coronavirus free: Deoghar, Godda, Dumka and Sahibganj. The State capital, Ranchi, continues to have a large number of cases, making it a cause of concern for officials.

Bihar, which also saw a spike in the number of cases with the return of migrants, has a total of 8,381 cases, and the number of deaths was 60 as of June 25. But the number of those who have recovered is 6,113, making it one of those States that have a high recovery rate of 72 per cent. Like Ranchi, Patna, Bihar’s capital, continues to be problematic, with 506 cases, but here too 287 patients have recovered.

While the Bihar government has been patting itself on the back for the low number of cases and fatalities because of its timely detection and treatment, opposition parties say this is because no testing is being done. “We have failed completely on testing. If you don’t count, then obviously, the number of cases will be low,” said Akhilesh Prasad Singh, Rajya Sabha member of the Congress.

In Bihar, however, the coronavirus is not as much of a concern as getting the caste equations right for the Assembly election, and this was visible in the parties’ choices of candidates for the State Legislative Council election to be held on July 6 for nine seats. The choices caused a lot of buzz in political circles. The RJD’s choice of Sunil Singh, Ram Bali Chandravanshi and Farukh Shaikh as it nominees set tongues wagging. According to political observers, the choice of Sunil Singh, a Rajput, was a definite giveaway that the RJD was trying to woo forward castes too. If the RJD gets even a fraction of the forward caste votes, it becomes a winning proposition for the party when combined with its substantial Muslim-Yadav vote bank.

“It is no secret that people in Bihar are not so happy with Nitish Kumar, and they are looking for alternatives. If the RJD is seen to be accommodating the upper castes too, why not?” said Raj Kumar, a BJP sympathiser.

The Janata Dal (United) too has chosen its nominees for the Legislative Council with the caste equation of the State in mind. Its candidates are Gulam Gaus, Kumud Verma and Bhism Sahni. The Congress party has fielded Samir Kumar Singh as its candidate. The dramatic manner in which Samir Singh’s candidature was decided is symptomatic of the confusion in the Congress party, not only in Bihar but everywhere else too. The party had just one seat to contest for the council election and had initially decided on Tariq Anwar, a five-time MP from Katihar. Working president Sonia Gandhi had approved his name. But, he was replaced at the eleventh hour because it was discovered his name was not on the voter’s list in Bihar, the primary criterion to be satisfied to contest council elections.

The political meter in Bihar started ticking ever since Amit Shah’s June 7 virtual rally. Modi addressed the people of Bihar on June 20 while launching the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan, an employment scheme for migrants returning to the State from other parts of India. Before starting his speech, the Prime Minister paid glowing tributes to the soldiers of the Bihar Regiment who laid down their lives fighting the Chinese in the Galwan Valley. Taking the Bihar Regiment to be synonymous with Biharis, Modi said that this was a victory for Biharis and every Bihari was proud of it.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who had not been seen for 85 days during the lockdown, held his own virtual meeting with his party workers on June 10 and is to continue his virtual meetings in the days to come to exhort them to spread the message of his government’s good performance.

The RJD, however, has decided to stick to its people-connect programmes instead of the virtual connect. RJD workers, led by Rabri Devi and Tejashwi Yadav, have been organising protests and marches to draw attention to the failures of the Nitish Kumar government. Social distancing and other precautions go for a toss during these programmes, but nobody seems to be bothered.

Meanwhile, typical election-time confabulations have started in the opposition camp where reports of differences over the leadership issue have started doing the rounds. While the RJD is firm on projecting Tejashwi Yadav as its chief ministerial face, its allies such as like the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party led by Upendra Kushwaha and the Hindustani Awam Morcha led by Jitan Ram Manjhi are not agreeable to the proposal. Even the Congress party said that the issue should not become the talking point at this stage. “The leadership issue can be discussed later,” said Akhilesh Prasad Singh, adding that there was no problem about it though. But there is a feeling among RJD allies that if Tejaswi Yadav is declared the leader of the alliance, the election would become a Nitish versus Tejashwi contest and the alliance would lose out. “Our main focus is to defeat the Nitish Kumar government, and we stand united on this. We are trying to rope in the Left parties too. One round of talks has already been held in Delhi where all parties attended,” said Akhilesh Prasad Singh.

Amidst all this animated election talk, the coronavirus has been relegated to the background. “Now new cases are coming slowly. The growth rate has fallen. God has been kind to Bihar, otherwise we would have paid a heavy price,” said Raj Kumar.