Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has claimed victory in the country’s first major state election held during the pandemic.
Results from the Election Commission of India show that Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its coalition partners have returned to power after a tight race for control of the legislative assembly in Bihar, the country’s third most populous state with more than 100 million people.
“Democracy has once again prevailed in Bihar with the blessings of the people,” Modi tweeted Tuesday local time, as results rolled in from Bihar’s legislative election. “I assure every citizen of Bihar that we will continue to work for the equal development of every region and for every person.”
The BJP and its three coalition partners won 122 out of 243 seats, just enough to secure the coalition a victory in a narrow race that involved three rounds of voting beginning in October. The Rashtriya Janata Dal won 75 seats – one more than BJP, but not enough to secure a victory even with its coalition partners.
Earlier polling indicated that the BJP could be headed for defeat in Bihar, which has been hit hard by measures to control India’s coronavirus outbreak, the worst in the world besides the United States in terms of virus caseload.
Bihar is one of India’s poorest states, and many residents travel outside the state for work. When Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown in March with only four hours notice, many migrant workers from Bihar were left without a job. According to Indian government data, more than 10 million migrant workers returned to their home states – including more than 1.5 million to Bihar.
Unemployment in Bihar rose from 15.4% in March to 46.6% in April, although it dropped back down in recent months as coronavirus restrictions eased. In October, Bihar had 9.8% unemployment, according to official statistics.
Bihar has reported more than 220,000 cases including 1,156 deaths – still a relatively small fraction of India’s 8.5 million cases and 127,000 deaths.
Although the number of daily new coronavirus cases in India has dropped from September when authorities frequently reported more than 90,000 a day, cases are starting to pick up again in the country’s capital New Delhi. Earlier this week, Delhi reported its largest single-day increase of Covid-19 cases, bringing its total to more than 450,000.
What the vote means
Although Bihar’s election was held in the shadow of the country’s unfolding coronavirus crisis, Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at Ashoka University, in India’s North Haryana state, said it was unclear how much of a role coronavirus had played in how people voted.
Bihar already suffered from high rates of joblessness before Covid-19, but the lockdown and handling of migrant workers had made that worse, he said. Anger and resentment over how the migrant crisis was handled likely cost the BJP some votes. The BJP won 36.8% of the vote in the last election in 2015, but this election only won 29.2%.
“It seems clear that Covid exacerbated every pre-existing problem … but not to a point where it would topple the government.”
“The belief that the voters have in Modi is that he means well, he can’t do wrong, that he’s the only alternative that exists and that trumps a hard look at the consequences of the government’s actions.”
Although BJP lost vote share in Bihar, its tight election success heralds a change in fortune for the party, which has been stung by a number of recent defeats in other local elections despite winning last year’s general election.
In February, Modi’s party suffered a dramatic local election defeat in New Delhi, with voters in the capital choosing to ignore his divisive, Hindu-nationalist platform. At the end of 2018, the BJP suffered defeats in key states Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
“This is obviously welcome news for the BJP,” Verniers said of the Bihar result.
How the election was held
As people headed to the polls, it was clear it wasn’t just any other election.
Staff in hazmat suits helped Covid patients to vote, according to a tweet from the office for the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) in Bihar.
Chalk circles were drawn on the ground to encourage voters to queue six-feet apart as they waited to cast their ballot, and voters had their temperatures checked before they were allowed into the polling booth. Special procedures were put in place for Covid-19 patients or suspected cases.
But the same kind of caution not always seen during campaigning.
Despite rising coronavirus cases in parts of India, politicians in Bihar held packed rallies ahead of the state vote. Images on social media showed large gatherings, where few wore face masks or practiced social distancing.
“India has demonstrated that it has the ability of organizing a safe election in terms of polling and counting,” Verniers said. “You cannot say the same for campaigning.”
CNN’s Vedika Sud also contributed reporting from New Delhi.