On Monday, April 19, 2021, a viral picture of a massive crowd of migrant labourers at the Anand Vihar ISBT bus terminus of Delhi hit social media. This came hours after Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a six-day lockdown at the national capital.
But on the other hand, in the past one month, there have been several pictures of massive crowds at the election rallies of the poll-bound states like West Bengal. With the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic various criticism was made against the Election Commission of India for allowing such massive rallies in the poll-bound states but there was hardly any proactive measure by the Election Commission of India.
After the announcement of the election in India, the legislative assemblies of the states or the Parliament gets dismantled. The incumbent government becomes the caretaking government and the power of taking decisions mostly stay with the Election Commission of India.
Significantly in the poll-bound situation, the state governments cannot put forward any restriction on the issues related to election campaigns because this matter is absolutely under the jurisdiction of the Election Commission of India. However, the political parties of the state can put forward their suggestions to the election commission.
It is very natural that while holding massive roadshows or rallies during election campaign maintaining social distancing is a utopia. Several leaders of various political parties have openly come out and said that political rallies cannot be held by maintaining Covid norms.
The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is being considered more dangerous than the first one. In a state like Delhi on average 25,000 cases of Covid positive patients are coming every day. The health infrastructure of various states is on the verge of collapsing. Several states like Maharashtra, Delhi and others have brought various restrictions like lockdown or curfew in the states.
Meanwhile, the Election Commission of India has played a very low-key role in the time of this health emergency. There is a general guideline issued by the Election Commission regarding holding poll rallies during the time of Covid. But there has been hardly any strict measures on monitoring these rallies.
Some days back the election commission announced that in West Bengal after 7 PM no election rally should take place. The number of COVID-19 cases is exponentially increasing in the state of Bengal where the election is going on in the last three phases of the election are still pending.
The situation is so bad that most of the private hospitals of Kolkata do not have vacant beds anymore. There is also a scarcity of oxygen, medicines and other medical infrastructure in West Bengal. Recently, the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking to allow the state to buy vaccines.
Several political parties including CPM, TMC and Congress among others requested the election commission to merge the pending phases of the election. However, the BJP opposed this idea and the election commission also maintained that merging the phases will not be possible.
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi declared that he will not hold political rallies looking into the rising Covid situation. TMC Chief Mamata Banerjee also declared that she will cut short the timing of the rallies. Eventually, the BJP also took a similar kind of decision.
While it is commendable that the political parties are showing seriousness over the situation, it is indeed the job of the election commission to take stern action in such an emergency condition. Being the key authority to monitor and conduct elections in India the election commission of India cannot go away from taking the responsibility of not being pragmatic to deal with the ongoing Covid situation at the poll-bound states.
It is bizarre that on the evening of April 21, the Election Commission of India observed that they cannot accept the suggestion of the TMC to merge the last three phases.
There is no doubt that every citizen has the right to participate in an election in India but at the same time under the Constitution of India, every citizen has the right to life. Extraordinary times deserve extraordinary measures and that is why the Election Commission should have taken a proactive role in bringing down the rally durations or participation of people. India is going through a health emergency, therefore, every institution should be pragmatic in dealing with the situation.
Recently, the Kolkata High Court has also come down heavily on the Election Commission and ordered to be more proactive. The High Court has also asked the state government why can’t they take any decision of restrictions during the election.
Looking into all these developments, it becomes very clear that this time, the role of the Election Commission in managing elections during Covid is indeed raising several questions.