Last week, the Allahabad High Court urged the Centre and the Election Commission (EC) to ban the rallies being held by political parties in the run-up to the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh early next year. It also requested them to consider postponing the polls.
There was good reason for the High Court’s suggestion. At a time when the country is once again witnessing a sharp spike in the number of cases of COVID-19, and we are probably staring at a third wave of the pandemic, huge public rallies by political parties, where few bother to wear a mask and social distancing is non-existent, can easily fuel the spread of infections.
Why Must It Be Business-as-Usual for Politics?
However, ignoring the High Court’s counsel, the EC on Thursday declared that the elections would take place in Uttar Pradesh as planned, since, pandemic or not, all political parties wanted the show to go on. There are four other states heading into elections next year – Goa, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Manipur. Presumably, those polls won’t be postponed either.
But what of the election rallies by political heavyweights that are attended by thousands, or even lakhs of people? Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav’s rally in Unnao, Home Minister Amit Shah’s roadshow in Hardoi or the Congress’s women’s meet, have all drawn massive crowds.
The Prime Minister has also announced that he will hold a mega rally in Lucknow in January and, no doubt, many more in UP and the other states that are going in for elections.
The point is that if state governments around the country are putting curbs on public gatherings like weddings and other celebrations, shutting down movie halls and limiting the number of people in restaurants and on public transport to try and stem the surge in infections, shouldn’t similar restrictions be imposed on election meetings as well? If every aspect of normal life – work, education, entertainment, businesses – can be severely curtailed to fight the pandemic, why must it be business as usual for politicians?
The High-Octane Campaigns in Bengal
So far, all that the Chief Election Commissioner, Sushil Chandra, has said in this regard is that a list of COVID-safety protocols would be put out once the election dates are announced in January.
Public memory is short, of course. But must institutional memory be short as well? Has the EC forgotten that its rather perfunctory strictures about COVID-appropriate behaviour during the elections in West Bengal over March and April 2021 were flouted by each and every political party? And this at a time when the deadly second wave of the pandemic was ravaging the country?
Whether it was Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress or the challenger, the BJP, which threw all its resources and firepower to unseat her, the parties vied with each other to get out the biggest rallies, the largest shows of support from their followers. As the Delta variant of the coronavirus spread like wildfire, as patients collapsed due to lack of oxygen, as corpses piled up in the crematoriums and people burned their dead in makeshift pits, unmasked political leaders gloated over the crowds they had drawn.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spearheaded the BJP’s high-octane election campaign in Bengal and held as many as 23 public meetings in a matter of 14 days, led by example. On 17 April, a day when India logged 2.34 lakh fresh COVID-19 infections, the BJP corralled a massive crowd for Modi’s election meet in Asansol.
And a delighted Prime Minister, evidently untroubled by the rally’s COVID-inappropriateness, congratulated the assembly. “Today, in all directions I see huge crowds of people ... have witnessed such a rally for the first time ... Today, you have shown your power,” he exulted.
Candidates, Teachers Died During the Second Wave
Indeed, like the Kumbh congregation in Haridwar earlier, every poll meet in the long, eight-phase Bengal elections that began on 27 March and ended on 29 April, felt like a horrifying super-spreading jamboree, allowing the virus a free pass to barrel through an unvaccinated citizenry and claim ever more lives.
Four candidates died of COVID-19 during the elections in Bengal. The number of common people who fell to the infection, specifically owing to their having attended rallies or been part of the election process, is, of course, unavailable. West Bengal registered a 22 times or 2,221% rise in the number of new cases recorded on a daily basis during its election season.
Some numbers are available for Uttar Pradesh, though, where panchayat elections were held in April, when the second wave of the pandemic was peaking. According to a union of primary teachers, 1,621 teaching staff died after contracting COVID-19 while dispensing their poll duties during the state’s panchayat elections.
Though the long-dreaded third wave of the pandemic is probably upon us now, India is in a distinctly better place today than it was in April-May. Most Indians are at least partially vaccinated, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, though highly transmissible, seems to cause mild infections, and we now have a plethora of vaccines as well as some drugs to battle with the virus.
Yet, state administrations around the country are once again adopting measures to try and control the rise in infections, because no one wants the surge to balloon to levels where it could once again overwhelm the country’s health infrastructure.
The EC needs to contribute to this effort rather than undermine it by sanctioning activities like elections – and their corollary, rallies – that cause the virus to run untrammelled.
Will the EC Learn Any Lessons?
CEC Sushil Chandra has stated that to ensure social distancing, the EC is going to extend the voting time by an hour and will also set up 11,000 additional booths in Uttar Pradesh.
This is hardly enough.
If elections are to be held in the midst of a cresting third wave of COVID-19, the EC must crack the whip and lay down some serious safety protocols to be followed by political parties.
It should restrict the number of attendees in election rallies and insist that the organisers ensure social distancing and make everyone wear masks. It should mandate that every political party holds a certain proportion of their public meetings virtually. Above all, it needs to penalise, swiftly and unequivocally, the parties that violate COVID-19 safety norms in any way.
The EC had mandated an eight-phase election in Bengal even though a protracted election process upped the risk of the spread of the virus. It also did nothing when parties violated COVID-19 norms with impunity.
Will the EC be more responsive to the exigencies of a surging pandemic this time round? Will it err on the side of caution or on the side of politics? That remains to be seen.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. She tweets @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)