Pandemic fallout, onion prices dominate Indian election

Mohammad Imran Khan, with Bhuvan Bagga in New Delhi
·2-min read
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held several rallies in Bihar state and promised to expedite development projects in the region
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held several rallies in Bihar state and promised to expedite development projects in the region

Social distancing has been abandoned in frantic campaigning to form a government in the Indian state of Bihar, in the world's biggest election since the coronavirus pandemic erupted.

Tens of thousands of people have crowded rallies by rival leaders, with hardly a mask in sight, ahead of Wednesday's first round of voting in the state of 125 million people.

The poll is the first in India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a strict virus lockdown in late March that led to millions of poor migrant workers, many from Bihar, losing their jobs with some having to walk for days or weeks back home.

The state, one of India's poorest, has been ruled by an alliance of Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the regional Janta Dal United party for over a decade. 

But opinion polls indicate disquiet with the incumbent regime, particularly Chief Minister Nitish Kumar from the JDU, who has been in power for most of the past 15 years, over perceptions he has not done enough to lift the state out of poverty.

Kumar's unpopularity has been further exacerbated by the lockdown, with hundreds of thousands of workers who returned home from other states still unable to find work in Bihar.

"There's been a lack of any development over the last 15 years under this (state) chief minister," Mohan Guruswamy from the Centre for Policy Alternatives think tank told AFP.

Unemployment and the cost of living have been major election issues, with the national government also striving to keep the prices of onions -- a key ingredient in Indian cuisine -- in check amid a shortage after heavy rains damaged crops.

New Delhi is keen to be seen doing everything within its power to control the price of the staple, a sensitive subject across South Asia where shortages can trigger widespread discontent with political ramifications.

The main opposition regional Rashtriya Janata Dal party, which remains tainted by past corruption allegations and is in an alliance with the national Congress party, has meanwhile promised to support unemployed youth and create thousands of new state government jobs.

Bihar's ruling alliance has banked heavily on Modi, who remains popular in the state. He has held several rallies and promised to expedite development projects if the alliance is returned to power.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also vowed at an election rally that "everyone in Bihar will get a vaccine for free" if voters back the coalition. 

Political strategist Amitabh Tiwari told AFP the election would be tough to call, with voters having to weigh up their dislike for Kumar with a desire to elect a BJP-backed government amid an increasing dependence on national virus aid.

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