Millions vote in India's first election in shadow of coronavirus

Saurabh Sharma
·2 min read
FILE PHOTO: A man rides a scooter at a crowded market a day before the Hindu festival of Dussehra amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai
FILE PHOTO: A man rides a scooter at a crowded market a day before the Hindu festival of Dussehra amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai

By Saurabh Sharma

LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - Health authorities in one of India's most populous states faced a big test on Wednesday with the country's first state assembly election being held since the novel coronavirus epidemic began, despite calls to postpone it.

The world's biggest democracy has one of its worst outbreaks of the coronavirus, with nearly 8 million infections, and voters lining up on the first day of a three-phase election for a new legislature in Bihar state were met with masks and temperature checks.

"Face masks and sanitizers have been provided to the staff deployed on election duty," said a polling officer in the holy city of Gaya, who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

"Face masks are also being provided to people who are reaching polling stations without wearing one."

In August, the Supreme Court rejected a bid by a Bihar political party to postpone the vote, ruling that the virus was not a valid reason to do so.

Voters followed social-distancing guidelines as they queued outside polling stations and some covered their mouths with shawls or scarves, video footage from Reuters partner ANI showed. Polling officials checked voters' temperatures.

Bihar is India's third-most populous state with a population of more than 100 million people. Voting takes place over three days, winding up on Nov. 7.

The outcome is not expected to have any major implications for national politics more than a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi secured a second term with a sweeping general election victory.

Modi, whose ruling alliance in Bihar is up against a united opposition, recently praised Bihar's handling of the coronavirus. Bihar has recorded more than 213,000 infections, fewer than many better-off Indian states with smaller populations.

India's daily increase in virus infections has been dipping since a September peak, but health experts warn that the numbers could surge again.

India is set to pass the milestone of 8 million infections on Thursday, as 43,893 new cases were reported in the past 24 hours, taking its total to 7.99 million, health ministry data showed.

India has the second-highest number of infections after the United States but its death toll has been relatively low at 120,010.

(Writing by Shilpa Jamkhandikar; Editing by Krishna Das, Robert Birsel)