Did Bihar set a poll precedent or
did it make us foolishly smug, asks Shekhar Iyer

When elections were called in Bihar last September despite a lot of corona cases, the Election Commission insisted on strict adherence to protocol even as it ruled out postponing the polls on account of the pandemic.

Consequently, the opposition parties, who had favoured postponement, were forced to seek ways to reach out to voters, initially through digital platforms and later, through actual public meetings.

The EC came out with guidelines for conducting the polls during the pandemic after it studied the practices followed in South Korea and Singapore where elections were held despite the pandemic. It was then pointed out by the EC that more than 34 countries conducted their national assembly or presidential elections while fighting Covid-19.

As Bihar was seen as the first test case of holding elections in the time of coronavirus, the EC allowed public meetings and roadshows, subjecting these gatherings to social distancing and other health safety norms.

Poll guidelines

It also held that roadshows should only have convoys of five vehicles each, excluding security vehicles, separated by an interval of half an hour, instead of the existing 100-metre rule. Not more than five people (including the candidate) were to be allowed for door-to-door campaigning. Candidates were also asked to submit their nomination papers and make their security deposit online and the number of people accompanying a candidate for filing nomination was restricted to not more than two.

Among other guidelines, voters could only enter a booth and cast their ballot if they were wearing masks. They were also asked to lower the masks for identification when required. Sanitisers were kept at the entry point, as well as inside the booths. Gloves were provided for signing on the voter register and pressing the button of EVM (electronic voting machine) for voting. A voter found having a fever would be checked a second time, and if their temperature was still high, they were given a token number and asked to come back in the last hour of polling to cast their vote. Similarly, those voters suffering from Covid-19 were told that they would be allowed to cast their votes in the last hour of polling, with preventive measures being followed.

During the counting of votes, crowding was sought to be avoided by cutting down the number of counting tables from 14 to seven, for each assembly constituency. This had even led to a delay in the announcement of the final results. By the time the elections in Bihar were over, the EC had earned a lot of praise for achieving what seemed an impossible task.

But this is not to say it was a perfect election as per Covid protocol, though a lot of adherence to basic rules was enforced.

Crowded gatherings

A section of the media that was delighted at the size of crowds gathered to hear Lalu Prasad Yadav’s son and then rising star Tejaswi Yadav did not mind that neither he nor his party leaders were adhering to Covid protocols--though Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen as more insistent that the arrangements at the BJP rallies stuck to prescribed norms.

When we look back five months later, Covid protocols have gone for a toss. Bihar did not succeed in setting the standard for other states to follow — because nobody realised that the coronavirus was on the comeback.

So, when the assembly polls took place in Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry and in the polls waiting to be completed in West Bengal, political leaders behaved as though Covid-19 was behind us — even though the number of cases were on the rise.

Whether they were rallies by Modi, roadshows by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and star opposition campaigners like Mamata Banerjee, E K Palaniswami, Pinarayi Vijayan, DMK chief M K Stalin or even Rahul Gandhi, there was hardly any serious attempt by the organisers of the rallies or the assembled crowd to adhere to the Covid protocols.

Onset of second wave

This was the time, as the polls got over in Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry on April 6, that the second wave of the coronavirus began raging across the states. Some top leaders like Pinarayi Vijayan even tested Covid-19 positive.

In West Bengal, where the EC conceived an eight-phase poll owing to the experience of election-related violence and organised attempts to prevent voters from casting their ballot, rallies and roadshows by rival parties assumed gigantic importance. Some rallies and roadshows were even held back-to-back in key constituencies to deny impact to the opposing side.

With Modi and Amit Shah claiming after each phase of polls that Mamata and her party were on the decline, the rallies by the BJP began to be more despised by the Trinamool Congress and a section of the media that looked at the possibility of a BJP victory as the most alarming thing for the national polity-- ahead of the next Lok Sabha polls due in 2024.

It is against this backdrop that the call for rallies to be stopped in Bengal have begun to be looked at with serious apprehension. No party wants to give up as yet — because they still think that there are voters who will reach out to them — only if they go to them before the D-day.

Callous approach

These leaders still think that the elections are crucial for their parties even if India is facing an unprecedented second wave of Covid-19 infections, recording numerous cases and deaths every day amid acute shortage of hospital beds, oxygen supply, medicines and vaccines.

A view thus taken is that the more rallies are addressed by Modi and Shah, the bigger will be the gains for the BJP, which shows off its confidence and aggression, while the Trinamool Congress is not in a similar position to enhance its appeal or armour by holding more counter-election meetings.

In this context, Rahul Gandhi’s decision to call off his rallies citing the Covid factor did not create much of a ripple in Bengal for a similar reason. The Congress has not been seen as a serious player to checkmate the BJP. Rahul had also avoided a tour of Bengal till the polls got over in Kerala on April 6, to avoid being seen in the political company of the Left, which is in alliance with the Congress in the state. Thus, he had addressed only two meetings in the state just in time for the fifth phase of voting on April 17.

It is pertinent to note that the voters of Bengal have themselves not exhibited any fear of the virus. The turnout of voters in the five phases of polling has ranged from 70 to 80 per cent. Even if the fear of the pandemic were to persist till the last phase of voting on April 29, voters may still be enthused to come out to cast their ballots because of the high stakes involved for them— and not just for the political parties caught in the slugfest. Certainly, you cannot stop voters from turning up in huge numbers because of Covid-19?

The writer is former Senior Associate Editor, Hindustan Times, and Political Editor, Deccan Herald, New Delhi

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