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Bihar Elections Amid Pandemic – Right or Wrong? Former CEC Answers

During the coronavirus outbreak, how will elections take place and what will they be like, the former CEC answers.

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Video Producer: Pratyusha Roychowdhury

“Markets are also opening up in Bihar. If you can go to buy groceries from the market, you can also go out to vote.”
SY Quraishi, Former Election Commissioner of India

In Bihar, elections are like a festival. It does not feel like a proper election until the historic Gandhi Maidan is packed with people. There are gatherings in every street and neighbourhood.

But, during the coronavirus outbreak, how will elections take place and what will they be like?

While the Bihar Assembly elections are just around the corner and there are debates and discussion over holding the election amid the coronavirus pandemic, The Quint spoke to SY Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner of India to understand how feasible the idea is. Here are excerpts from the interview:

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Elections amid pandemic – right or wrong?

In the last four months, whenever a speculation on whether the election would take place or not happened, I always said that there is no question of postponing the election dates.

Many countries have held elections during the pandemic. So, this speculation was completely baseless. Then people had confusion that some by-election was to be postponed. By-election is a different ball game altogether. Governance is not affected by two to four vacant seats. No constitutional problem arises. No major issue.

If Assembly elections are not held on time, president’s rule has to be imposed.

There is a huge difference between postponing a by-election and an Assembly or general election. The Election Commission closely observed the nations that conducted elections recently. South Korea set a great example by conducting a successful election with a high voter turnout.

This becomes a challenge for us, that if South Korea, a comparatively smaller nation can hold elections, why can’t we?

The general safety precautions that should be followed during the voting procedure are what they have included in the guidelines as well.

Despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Bihar, why did the EC decide to hold elections now?

If you can go to buy groceries from the market, you can also go out to vote.

They must maintain precautions like social distancing, wearing masks and PPE kits. There should be provision of gloves for people to cast votes while using the EVMs.

Election campaigns and rallies must also follow social distancing norms.

Is holding elections during a pandemic beneficial to the ruling party?

The ruling party does have an obvious advantage. But ruling parties also lose elections.

The advantage to the ruling party is, however, limited. It is not a major issue.

Popular parties with less resources also secure votes.

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How will the spread of fake news on social media be controlled?

We do not have a proper mechanism to counter the spread of fake news.

Firstly, calling it a digital election would be wrong. Digital election would mean that you register your vote via the internet. We have neither considered that, nor will it be considered in the near future.

People even point fingers at our simple standard EVM. So, there is no chance of conducting digital voting.

Only campaign is supposed to be digital, not voting.

We have been looking for a solution to fake news since social media was first introduced. Initially, these digital media platforms were not even willing to talk to us.

But, before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Election Commission held meetings with Facebook, WhatsApp and arranged for voter education through Facebook.

They agreed to take action against fake news and hate speech, but they said – “we must not receive complaints from the public we must receive complaints from a designated officer.”

The EC assigned designated officers to Facebook and if these designated officers complained, immediate action would be taken. They decided that within three hours they would examine the complaint. If the messages were found to be fake or spreading hate, they would remove it.

I considered it a major step forward.

However, a fake/hate message on social media for three hours could rile up the entire country.

So, if I am the designated officer by the EC and if I complaint, then the computer must trust my complaint and remove it immediately. This enforcement machinery needs to be tightened.

With chances of low voter turnouts amid COVID-19, are floods and transportation also issues?

Turnout may be low due to the floods in Bihar but the elections are four months from now. The pandemic and flood situation might change in the next four months.

If the voter turnout is low despite that, it would be a sad situation, but nothing can be done about that.

Watch the video above for the full interview.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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