The second half of Thursday, I was flooded with media calls about ‘reports’ that the Election Commission had proposed clubbing of the remaining phases of West Bengal elections and most political parties had supported it. Later in the evening, a denial came from the Election Commission that it was not considering any such step. However, Chief Electoral Officer, West Bengal, had called a meeting of all political parties on Friday to discuss strict compliance of COVID-19 guidelines. This step reportedly was triggered by the Calcutta High Court expressing its concern over gross violations of COVID-19 guidelines endangering people’s lives. This is the culmination of days of television reports showing blatant violations of guidelines by all political parties, taking out big rallies where no social distancing was observed and no face masks were worn.
Amid the rising number of coronavirus cases, the EC had on April 9 flagged instances of star campaigners and leaders campaigning without masks and warned that it would not hesitate in banning events. This threat obviously had no effect since it was not executed.
Questions were raised about EC’s effectiveness in enforcing its own elaborate, excellent guidelines. Such gross violations caught the administration on the wrong foot not only in the poll-bound state but also in Uttarakhand where thousands of devotees were shown without masks and no social distancing at Kumbh. While challaning large crowds of people, numbering in ten, twenty or fifty thousand, is physically impossible, banning such gatherings altogether—restricting them to only a few dozen—is the only practical solution.
I had tweeted on Thursday, “The proposal to club last three phases of polls in WB alongside the ban on all physical rallies is sensible, desirable and doable. Saving lives at all costs is the foremost objective.”
Let me explain why this is sensible and desirable. The sole purpose of multi-phase elections when these were introduced in 1990s was to make polling peaceful by deploying paramilitary forces. Since their availability is limited, the same force is deployed, from one phase to another, for a multiplier effect. An eight-phase poll would mean that a jawan would be deployed eight times, moving from one place to another. The personnel stay together in a camp, move together in trains or buses, thereby raising the risk of exposure. As a commandant of a force exclaimed, “When an entire batch stays together, eats together and does all its work together, if one person is infected, it can quickly spread through the entire batch.” Unfortunately, it is not just a theoretical possibility.
According to a news report, with the second wave of coronavirus, the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) have seen a surge in infection among its personnel over the last three weeks, with 2,727 cases till Wednesday, up from 272 active cases on March 23—a frightening 1000 per cent increase within three weeks. The forces have, so far, lost 16 jawans this year to COVID-19. Besides voters, ensuring the security of polling personnel, including security forces, is always a priority for the EC. The commission wants every election to be casualty free.
It would have been ideal to shorten the campaign and finish the polls at the earliest opportunity, but that is not legally possible after notification is issued for each phase. The schedule laid down in law stipulates 14 days of campaign after the last date of withdrawal of nominations till the day of poll. Law does not allow curtailing the campaign period from the prescribed 14 days. Even Article 324, which is the reservoir of powers for the Election Commission, cannot be used in violation of a specific provision of law.
But postponing or extending the schedule by a few days is possible. That is why clubbing the remaining phases with the last election phase is doable.It is noteworthy that while the forces move, from phase to phase, the trouble-making goondas also move—and much faster. Clubbing would ensure that they are confined to one area too. Now, that the EC has put to rest all speculation, making it clear that it has no intention of clubbing the poll phases, it must ensure mischief-makers of all hues do not freely move, from one phase to another. That’s imperative for making the polls violence-free and saving lives.