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EC's Crackdown on Big Poll Rallies Appears Too Late As Covid-19 Cases Spiral in Bengal

Voters stand in queue to cast their vote in phase six of West Bengal elections.

Voters stand in queue to cast their vote in phase six of West Bengal elections.

On the day EC took the action, Bengal reported a high of 11,948 cases and 56 deaths. Active cases stood at 68,798. The positivity rate was an alarming 22.5%.

The Election Commission (EC) has banned all road shows as well as public meetings with over 500 people in West Bengal, soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi called off his poll campaign in the state. But Bengal’s Covid numbers reviewed by News18 show the poll watchdog’s action on Thursday could be a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Sample this: On the day EC took the action, Bengal reported a high of 11,948 cases and 56 deaths. This brought the number of active cases to 68,798, while the daily positivity rate stood at an alarming 22.5% — which rivalled many worst-affected states such as Maharashtra.

These figures have grown phenomenally in the last six days since April 16, the day EC took its previous action of banning all campaigning between 7pm and 10am, and extended the silence period for the remaining phases to 72 hours. That day the state reported 6,910 fresh cases and 26 deaths; active cases stood at 41,047 with a positivity rate of 17%.

In its Thursday order, EC said “it has noted with anguish that many political parties/candidates are still not adhering to prescribed safety norms during the public gatherings”, without naming anyone in particular. In the last six days, chief minister Mamata Banerjee held 20 rallies and a road show, Union home minister Amit Shah nearly a dozen rallies and road shows, and BJP state president Dilip Ghosh over 15 rallies and road shows. After the EC action, Banerjee cancelled all her campaign programmes, and said she will opt for virtual meetings. The BJP said programmes of all its senior leaders will be rescheduled. Incidentally, Ghosh had five road shows and his colleague, Suvendu Adhikari, had four road shows planned for Friday.

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BIG SPIKE IN CASES

EC’s Thursday action came just four days before the campaign was to end. The poll watchdog had made another intervention in Bengal on April 9, issuing a “strict warning” that it won’t hesitate to ban rallies if Covid guidelines were not followed. Health records show that on April 9, the state was reporting about 3,648 daily cases at a 10% test positivity rate, while active cases stood at 18,603. Today’s figures are four times those levels.

A former senior EC official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told News18 that the poll body should have acted much earlier, after it was apparent that no Covid norms were being followed in rallies or road shows in violation of standing instructions in place since the Bihar elections.

EC has still not banned public meetings as long as the participation doesn’t exceed 500 people —the same parameter the BJP specified for its own rallies three days ago. For the record, this is the first time that EC has put such a cap. The watchdog’s guidelines for the Bihar elections last year never put any limit on the number of attendees at a rally, though they said social distancing norms and do gaz ki doori must be followed. For the record, Bengal reported just 812 cases on March 27, when votes were cast in the first round of the eight-phase elections. Active cases stood at 4,608 with a test positivity rate of just 3% on that day.

Three candidates have died due to Covid during the Bengal polls, while at least half a dozen candidates have contracted the infection, apart from star campaigners such as Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and Manoj Tiwari.

THE LAST 2 PHASES

The last two phases of the Bengal elections feature 71 seats, with a big chunk of them in the Muslim-dominated districts of Murshidabad (22 seats) and Malda (12 seats), and the urban areas of Kolkata (11 seats). The Trinamool Congress is banking on these seats in a big way; it won only five seats in Murshidabad and Malda in the 2016 assembly elections. It did win all 11 seats in Kolkata though. In 2016, overall, the TMC won 32 out of the 71 seats in the last two phases, and it is looking to better its performance this time. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is also aiming to make inroads into all three districts. PM Modi will hold a virtual rally on Friday for voters, especially in Malda, Murshidabad, Kolkata and Rabindranath Tagore’s land of Bolpur.

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