Bengal Polls: Amid COVID Crisis, What EC Could’ve Done, But Didn’t
The EC refused to implement COVID norms, or shorten the elections and, basically, just do its job.
If you were wondering what a safe number for congregations during an unprecedented COVID-19 surge in the country is, the Election Commission of India (EC) has an answer. And apparently, it's 500.
On 22 April, after being pulled up by the Calcutta High Court (for the second time), the EC announced guidelines for the electoral campaign in West Bengal in the wake of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its ‘guidelines’, the EC said four days before campaigning ended for the month-long election, that election rallies could only be conducted with a maximum of 500 people.
Now, the obvious question many asked was how is ‘500’ a safe number? But this was not the first time that the EC had fallen shy of announcing ‘stringent’ campaign norms in the light of the pandemic in Bengal. Even the norms announced were done after it was pulled by the courts.
Here's What Happened
In a poll-bound state, the Election Commission holds massive power. Law and order comes under its domain and it can, if it wants, completely regulate how campaigning for an election will be done.
However, after 4 phases of polling that ended on 10 April, the EC was forced to take cognizance of the COVID surge only after the Calcutta High Court pulled it up on 13 April. Even after that, while the EC convened an all-party meeting to discuss COVID and election campaigns, there were no significant change in its campaign rules.
The ‘super-spreader’ rallies continued, forcing the HC to pull up the Commission once again on 22 April, when India saw over 3 lakh daily cases due to the second COVID-19 wave, specifically stating that the Commission had to go beyond circulars and holding meetings.
It must actually implement these protocols and ensure a safe election. It is then that the EC announced ‘stricter’ rules.
All roadshows, bike rallies etc were banned and election rallies are now to be allowed with 500 people only. Again, only 4 days before campaigning ends in a month-long eight-phase election.
Fun fact: since the beginning of the elections, and the day the EC made this announcement, the number of daily cases in Bengal increased by 1,300%.
What are These Bizzare Rules?
First of all, courts shouldn’t have to pull up the EC and ask it to do its job in the middle of a pandemic. But the Commission’s response to all of the Calcutta High Court’s directions show us why we’d be so much worse without the court today.
After the HC’s rap on 13 April, the EC issued its first set of COVID guidelines, which was increasing the silent period in poll bound constituencies to 72 hours from 48 hour and, quite bizarrely, banning campaigns between 7pm to 10pm.
These guidelines were called by many as hogwash because, of course, the big crowds were not coming in during the night-time campaigns.
Even after that, when the new set of guidelines were announced, many questioned the arbitrary 500-people rule. How do you monitor if a public rally has more than 500 people? Is the EC going to deploy officials at all political rallies? And how is having even 500 people gathering at this time a safe approach? These 500 people may be possible carriers and infect another 500. You and I know and understand that. But seems like the EC is still unsure of how the coronavirus works and spreads.
Also interesting to note is this magical number of 500 was introduced by the EC only after the BJP announced that it will restrict all its rallies to 500 people.
Just FYI. I’m drawing no co-relation. You are!
The EC Could've Shortened The Election, But Didn't
Probably the most criminal move by the Election Commission this election has been the decision to hold it in eight phases in the first place. If safety and fair polling was a concern, more security could've been deployed. Better law and order could've been ensured. But having a month-long election during a pandemic is not just imprudent but also extremely insensitive.
Since the end of the fourth phase of polling, when the COVID surge got really bad, many had requested the EC to club the last four phases as one.
The Trinamool Congress, for one, persisted with this demand even in the fifth and sixth phase and is now even asking for the last two phases to be clubbed together.
The EC has, however, categorically shot down this claim.
In its response to the last letter by the Trinamool, the EC said that this was “not feasible”. It cited the Representation of People Act, 1951, to state that there needed to be 14 days between the date of polling and the day when the polls were notified. And since each phase is notified separately, clubbing the phases will not be possible.
Okay then. But that just means that the EC should have taken this decision on its own and much earlier.
So essentially, the EC did not regulate rallies, did not advocate shortening the elections and had to be pushed by the court to do its job.
Dear Election Commission, we wish you’d stepped up for the very electorate whose rights you seek to protect at a time when they needed you the most. Make no mistake, you HAVE FAILED us.
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