Poll amid pandemic: Voting right vs human life
On January 8, 2022, the Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the schedule of fresh assembly elections in five Indian states—Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Manipur, and Uttarakhand—for the first major bout of polls in the New Year, amid the galloping cases of Covid-19 pandemic. The exponential rise in the daily cases of infections is a matter of serious concern to all, and one mathematical modelling done by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur suggests that the ongoing pandemic may peak in late January or first week of February, when daily cases could hit as high as 800,000—that is around the time when the entire polling exercise begins in Uttar Pradesh. In this situation, holding free and fair elections with maximum voter turnouts is a challenge for the Election Commission.
Concerns persist in some quarters about the wisdom behind holding assembly polls in the five states at a time when Covid cases are rising so rapidly across India. The share of these five states to India's overall pandemic caseload has risen of late. The Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh recently requested the ECI to consider postponing the poll dates given the worsening Covid situation in the state. But, as former CEC SY Qureshi points out in a newspaper article, it is not within the commission's power to postpone the polls as the Indian Constitution does not empower the poll body to do so.
"Postponing elections is not in their hands at all and would be a violation of the constitutional mandate that gives every Vidhan Sabha a fixed term. As soon as the term is over, the House stands dissolved automatically. The term of the House cannot be extended except in an emergency declared by parliament, which the constitution restricts to only two situations—war and breakdown of law and order," he writes. Qureshi also recalls that in the seven decades of India's electoral history, this has happened only thrice—in Assam, Punjab, and Jammu and Kashmir—amid insurgency situations.
The ECI would be under the scanner for how it conducts the elections in the five states amid the pandemic. One cannot forget the savage criticism the ECI had faced last year, when it had conducted the assembly polls in the midst of the devastating second wave of Covid. In May last year, the Madras High Court told the ECI that "You should be put on murder charges probably," that "You are the most irresponsible over the last few months in not stopping political parties from wanton abuse of the Covid-19 protocol," and that "You are the only institution responsible for the situation that we are in today."
Incumbent CEC Sushil Chandra, while coming out with the timetable for the coming polls on January 8, defended the decision to go ahead with the polls, asserting that holding the elections is the "essence of maintaining democratic governance."
The challenges for Chandra remain the same as those of his predecessor Sunil Arora: to ensure people's safety and that the pandemic situation is not exacerbated by the polls.
The ECI has outlined a slew of measures keeping in mind the pandemic and the involvement of more than 180 million voters in the forthcoming polls. It has broken some new ground. For the first time, it has barred physical rallies and roadshows till January 15, saying the rule would be reviewed after that since the "ground situation is dynamic," indicative of an incremental posture. Quraishi, however, questioned the rationale behind the move and the line drawn between rallies and public meetings.
The real test of the ECI's ability to hold the polls will be how it enforces its elaborate Covid-related guidelines by marshalling the administrations in the five states, and how much the latter cooperates. The biggest challenge for the efficiency and independence of the ECI is, of course, how it deals with the Covid guidelines violations—if any—by the political parties. There is a possibility that such issues could be politicised, but the ECI should not come under any pressure from any quarter in cracking down on health protocols, because they relate to an unprecedented public health emergency.
While the ECI actions to enforce Covid guidelines will be under close scrutiny, stricter monitoring will be called for political parties abiding by them, because it is the parties which were unanimous in conveying to the ECI that the polls be held on time despite the pandemic. The parties must help the ECI's bid to ensure that the electoral exercise does not turn into a Covid-19 super-spreader event—especially in rural areas, where the health infrastructure is creaky.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.