The upcoming elections to five states — Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa, and Manipur — will be a test of the Election Commission of India’s ability to stay firm in the face of overwhelming political pressure to allow the elections to be conducted on a ‘business-as-usual’ basis. While the EC has decided to go ahead with the polls as per the originally announced schedule from February 10 onwards, with results due to be declared on March 10, it has, for the moment, put several curbs in place. All public rallies, as well as other tested weapons in the arsenal of political parties and politicians, such as open-air roadshows, processions and so on, have been banned till January 15. There is an option to file nominations online. Officials drafted for polling duties will have to be fully vaccinated. Those eligible will also be given a ‘precautionary’ dose, which is what India is calling the booster shot at the moment. Beyond this, government agencies have been directed to sanitise polling booths, while health authorities in poll-bound states have been directed to speed up vaccination for the public at large, in order to ensure that the maximum number of voters gathering to exercise their franchise are protected.
All this would seem to indicate the lessons of the last set of state assembly elections, which preceded the devastating second wave of the pandemic, have been fully onboarded by the EC. It may be recalled that all Covid protocols were thrown to the winds during the March-April 2021 Assembly elections in West Bengal, Assam, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Even before the polls, just before the model code of conduct kicked in,the mass gathering of millions of people at the Kumbh Mela was allowed. At that time, the state government had reeled out an impressive list of precautions that were to be taken during the Kumbh to prevent a surge, including an insistence on vaccination certificates from those attending the mela. In the event, most of the norms were flouted or by-passed. Both the religious festival and the massive elections campaigns that followed shortly after turned out to be super-spreader events which contributed greatly to the devastating second wave.
In fact, the EC’s insistence that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic does not constitute an ‘emergency’ as defined in Article 172 of the Constitution (declaring such an emergency would have allowed the deferment of elections and legally allowed the existing assemblies to run beyond the stipulated term of five years) is already raising eyebrows, since a pandemic of the kind currently sweeping the world was probably undreamt of at the time the provision was made in the Constitution. It is also abundantly clear that whatever briefing the health ministry gave the EC – based on which it decided to go ahead with the polls as scheduled – was based on partial or early data. The Omicron wave is sweeping the country at a remarkable pace. India saw more than 1,68,000 cases on Tuesday and the national positivity rate has gone past 10 per cent. With the latest guidelines issued on January 10 obviating the need for mandatory testing of asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic persons and their contacts, the true numbers of those infected may well be suppressed by a large factor. Several epidemiological models, including the one created by IIT Kanpur, which have proven highly accurate in the past, are predicting a peaking of the third wave by the second or third week of February.
Allowing normal Indian style campaigning after January 15 in such a scenario is a recipe for disaster. While the majority of those infected are admittedly only showing mild symptoms, hospitalisations and serious cases are on the rise. While the larger base of total infections reduces the percentage of those seriously impacted, given the bigger base, the absolute numbers of those needing medical intervention is bound to rise sharply, at a time when hospitals are struggling to maintain a full complement of staff on duty as infections are hitting frontline workers as well.
That said, it is understandable that political parties are unhappy with the ban on physical meetings. Uttar Pradesh has the lowest internet penetration in India. According to government data, 96 per cent of rural households in the state did not have computers. Almost half the women in the state have never used the internet. This makes virtual campaigning a hit or miss affair. However,the EC must vigorously pursue the idea of offering a virtual option, not only for filing nominations and campaigning but voting as well. Ensuring not only broadband access but access to devices as well as affordable internet services must become a national priority, not only for holding elections but to ensure thatthe benefits of modern education, healthcare and development reach the people.
(To receive our E-paper on whatsapp daily, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)