A 'lethal' failure
A greater sense of responsibility and timely action on the part of EC could have prevented the worst from unfolding
The Election Commission of India, in its wisdom, had decided to hold Assembly election in West Bengal spread over a month, in eight long phases, while it had held Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry in a single-phase and in Assam in three phases respectively. Why did it decide to do so? Ostensibly, the history of poll violence in West Bengal has prompted the Election Commission to do so. This logic however does not hold water because mobilization of more paramilitary forces would have ensured more or less free and peaceful election in West Bengal. The EC had completely overlooked the fact that it is holding an election during a PANDEMIC!
After a relentless rampage from April to December 2020, Covid-19 had been on the ebb only from January to March 2021 due to very strict measures by the Central as well as the State governments. The citizens too had cooperated and heeded the warning of the doctors and health officials to stay indoors and follow all covid protocols during the festive season. It is disciplined and cautious public behaviour that had helped West Bengal to escape a spike in Covid-19 cases after Durga Puja, the biggest festival of West Bengal. But come elections and all caution has been thrown to the dustbin along with used face masks! There were huge rallies and meetings. All political parties vying with one another to have the biggest crowds! These rallies acted as super spreader events as no one wore masks, there was no question of social distancing or Covid appropriate behaviour. By this time Covid-19 was spreading like wildfire in Maharashtra and Gujarat, yet the Election Commission did not put a stop to the super spreader meetings and roadshows. In the meantime, many candidates have tested positive and a few candidates have also succumbed to the dreaded virus. When some political parties broached this subject to the Commission after four phases of polls, the EC could have easily clubbed three or four phases and helped in lessening the spread of Covid-19. But, what did they do? They just barred rallies 72 hours prior to the polling and capped the size of the meetings at 500! Why the magic number of 500? A meeting of 500 odd people is also a super spreader event. This was at best tokenism!
Instead, the commission could have banned all rallies and public meetings and should have allowed only virtual meetings. If children can attend virtual classes for more than a year, can't political parties hold virtual rallies? In early March, before the polls, Bengal had around 300 cases per day and at present, it is 16,000 new cases per day (official figure). The unofficial figure is spine chilling! Out of every two persons tested one is found positive! Some figures indicate, before the polls, if around five per cent of people were affected, at present the figure shifts to somewhat around 60 per cent. And for this huge spike, EC is solely responsible. There is a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen and medicine everywhere. The citizens have been put in immense hardship and agony. Even in death, there is no peace because Covid-19 robs you of the basic dignity in death. Such a calamity could have been avoided if EC had strictly enforced Covid appropriate behaviour during the election, held it in two phases and ordered all meetings to be held virtually.
The High Court of Calcutta on April 22 noted this and expressed dissatisfaction with EC on implementation of Covid norms by saying it cannot abdicate its responsibility merely by issuing circulars! It did not hide its displeasure and said it was not satisfied that the EC and its officers on the ground in West Bengal had enforced their circulars. In a more scathing order, the Madras High Court on April 26 admonished the Election Commission of India for allowing political rallies amid a deadly second wave of Covid-19. 'The EC is singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19 by not stopping political parties from holding election rallies', Madras HC Chief Justice Sanjib Bannerjee said. The Madras HC also observed, "Your institution is singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19. Election Commission officers should be booked on murder charges probably." The Madras HC went on to warn that it will 'stop' counting on May 2 if the Election Commission does not put in place a proper plan to ensure that the Covid-19 protocol is followed. The Chief Justice said "Public health is of paramount importance and it is distressing that constitutional authorities have to be reminded in such regard. It is only when a citizen survives that he'll be able to enjoy the rights that a democratic republic guarantees."
The Honourable High Courts have finally taken matters into their hands and even though it is late in the day it will hopefully bring some respite to the people of Bengal and other states. If only the Election Commission of India had acted on time with a sense of responsibility and sensitivity perhaps the biggest festival of democracy would not have turned in to a funeral procession!
The writer is a former bureaucrat. Views expressed are personal