Millions queue to vote as India state election gets under way

PATNA, INDIA (AFP) – Millions of Indians turned out to cast ballots in a state election yesterday in the world’s biggest vote since the coronavirus emerged, with booths packed out and many ignoring government advice on wearing masks and social distancing.

Some 70 million people are eligible to vote in Bihar, an impoverished eastern state governed by an alliance that includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has promised a free vaccine for every person in the state if it wins. The election comes as India, the world’s second most-infected nation, records between 40,000 and 50,000 new cases each day and looks set to surpass the eight million mark.

“I am a little afraid because corona(virus) is not a small disease,” said Nidhi Kumari, a 21-year-old student queueing up to vote in the outskirts of the state capital Patna.

“But there are precautions at polling booths. They are giving sanitisers and gloves.”

Voting in Bihar has been split across three days – Wednesday, November 3 and November 7 – to reduce crowding at booths.

Coronavirus patients will be allowed to cast a ballot under the supervision of the health authorities.

Modi – who held several rallies across the state in the run-up to the polls – appealed to voters yesterday “to take all Covid precautions while participating in this festival of democracy”. But at two booths visited by AFP, there were long queues of voters lined up heel-to-toe, and few masks in sight.

Authorities have struggled to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing during rallies across the state that have attracted tens of thousands of people.

A woman screens the body temperature of voters at a polling station at Paliganj, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. PHOTO: AP