By the time the Election Commission concluded its press conference to announce the schedule for the Bihar Assembly poll, the state’s most-read news daily was working on something unusual to carry the following day at its Buddha Marg office in Patna.
Hindustan published a full-page resolution on the editorial code that it vowed to follow in its coverage of the three-phase poll scheduled on October 28, November 3 and November 7, concluding with the counting of votes on November 10. Titled “Hamara sankalp”, or “our resolve” the paper promised to stay away from publishing paid news, baseless allegations, slander, communally sensitive statements, and hate speech.
Apart from issuing this assurance, Hindustan also committed itself to impartiality, coverage without fear or favour, and an equal voice to all the contesting parties and candidates. It explained to its readers that election-related advertising in the paper would be marked as “media market initiative” features, and would appear in a different font to help readers make the distinction.
This page was preceded by a front page dedicated to the announcement of the poll schedule. The banner heralded the polls as “Bihar mein loktantra ka mahaparv “ (The great festival of democracy in Bihar). The first two pages were made part of the paper’s daily poll feature, titled “Aao raajniti karein” (Let’s do politics).
Other leading Hindi dailies also reported the notification of the poll schedule with screaming headlines and an assortment of related reports, and even front-page commentary.
Dainik Bhaskar used a festive image to depict the polling and counting dates. “Dusshre ke baad Mahabharat, Diwali ke pehle raajtilak, Chhath tak Loktantra ka mahaparv” was the banner headline for the Election Commission’s announcement, translating to: “Mahabharat after Dussehra, coronation before Diwali, the great festival of democracy till Chhath.”
The paper also to ensure social distancing during India’s first electoral exercise during the pandemic. In a box item, it noted that the Election Commision was prepared with 7.2 crore single-use gloves, seven lakh units of hand sanitiser, 46 lakh masks, six lakh PPE kits, and 7.6 lakh face shields as part of its poll paraphernalia.
Interestingly, Dainik Bhaskar was one of two dailies that chose to write a front-page editorial comment on the forthcoming poll. Satish Singh, the editor of the daily’s Bihar edition, commented that the timing of the polls declaration might play an important role. Singh reflected on the edge that parties and candidates better equipped with technological reach might have, though small rallies and meets have been permitted within the Election Commission’s guidelines.
More significantly, Singh talked about the role that will be played by the willingness of core voter groups of different parties to come out and vote. The extent to which parties can convince core voters about safe voting, and enthuse them about coming to polling booths, might be important, he wrote.
Even though the movement and presence of people in public spaces in the state do not indicate any significant alarm about the pandemic, Singh continued, the inference is that parties with voters who are less anxious about the pandemic might have a possible advantage.
Prabhat Khabar was the second daily with a front-page editorial comment on the poll announcement. The daily’s chief editor, Ashutosh Chaturvedi saw the election as an opportunity to craft Bihar’s development and address persistent challenges of economic backwardness despite the state's glorious past and important role in directing India’s socio-political consciousness. The paper reported the poll schedule with a headline addressed to the voters of the state: “Teen charnon mein chune Sarkar” (Elect your government in three phases).
Moving away from the generally festive metaphors in the leading Hindi dailies, Dainik Jagran settled for a martial one: “Baj gayee Ranbheri.” The war bugle has been sounded.
The use of the same metaphor was seen in the banner headline of the Patna edition of the Times of India, the most read English daily in the state. The paper’s headline read “EC sounds bugle for battle of Bihar”. On , the paper’s bureau chief reflected on whether the absence of a key leader from the Grand Alliance key leader meant an advantage for the incumbent National Democratic Alliance. The paper further pondered over the possibility of the NDA having a chief ministerial candidate in Nitish Kumar while the Grand Alliance is still struggling to strike a consensus about its chief ministerial face.
Unlike its sister Hindi publication, Hindustan Times skipped issuing a resolution on its poll coverage. Its headline sought to capture the historical sense of these polls, reading: “EC declares India’s 1st Covid-era polls in Bihar.” In a more focused second page on the poll, the paper reflected on how this election can be seen as a referendum on 15 years of the Nitish Kumar-led government as well as the Centre, the key faces in the poll fray, and the key issues likely to figure in the campaign over next few weeks.
The eastern edition of the Hindu had a headlined, “Bihar poll to be held in 3 phases from Oct.28”, along with analysis on the state election — “NDA gears for first polls during pandemic” — filed from its national bureau.
As the Election Commission has set the poll process in motion, the coming weeks will witness a campaign that will be as unprecedented in its nature as the spread of a global pandemic. However, what won’t change is the complex interplay of social and political forces, and the imperatives of governance that will define Bihar’s electoral landscape.
While leading news dailies in the state expectedly gave the poll announcement the top billing in their pages, the next few weeks will give them many more important stories to tell from Bihar’s poll scene.
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