The Congress on Friday alleged that the Election Commission's guidelines for holding polls during the coronavirus pandemic fall "far short" of ensuring conduct of elections in a "free, non-partisan and fair fashion" without giving undue advantage to the ruling party. The opposition party also said that despite having sought comments from political parties to which detailed recommendations were given, the Elections Commission (EC) has "overlooked" almost all the suggestions given and prepared guidelines that are inadequate in dealing with the challenge of COVID-19.
Congress general secretary in-charge organisation, K C Venugopal, in a statement, called upon the EC to revisit the recommendations made by the Congress and to invite all political parties for a comprehensive discussion meeting where issues can be discussed in a transparent and effective manner. The EC guidelines "fall far short for the conduct of 'free, fair and independent elections' in times of Coronavirus infections and in ensuring the smooth conduct of elections in 'free, non-partisan and fair fashion' without giving undue advantage to the ruling party", he said.
The EC guidelines clearly fail these principal tests thereby negating the constitutional obligation of 'superintendence and control of elections' in a non-partisan and unbiased manner, Venugopal alleged. "The simple question to ponder over is, if the very foundation of democracy — our elections cannot be conducted fairly, how will adult franchise and majority mandate, the lifeblood of our democracy, be effectively upheld?" he said.
In the statement, Venugopal also highlighted some of the party's key concerns like the Congress had requested that the use of EVM's be avoided, especially given the extremely high chances of infection for a very large part of the population from shared use of one machine. This concern can be easily avoided with the use of paper ballots, he said.
"The EC has completely failed to address this concern, instead opting to passively state that EVM's and VVPAT's will be sanitised. As the last six months have established, this is not a fool-proof measure," Venugopal claimed. Another concern, he said, was that the guidelines don't make any deep distinctions between the specific challenges of rural areas and urban areas which have seen the spread of Covid-19 in very different ways.
"The EC has left this to the discretion of state officials instead. The ECI must provide for detailed guidelines and not leave the safety and wellbeing of the voters to the differing interpretations and largess of local authorities," Venugopal said. The EC's guidelines say that the relevant provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and the Indian Penal Code will be invoked against anyone who violates the said guidelines, however, the poll panel has "surprisingly missed the potential for abuse by the ruling party which controls the policing machinery", the Rajya Sabha MP said.
"For example, where members of a crowd in a political gathering violate the rules, how does the EC ensure that the candidate will be indemnified from unjust penalty or harassment?" he said. "These are just select examples of the deficiencies in the Covid-19 prevention measures prescribed for the conduct of upcoming elections," Venugopal said.
In case the EC falters in this bounden duty, the consequences for democracy would be "catastrophic", he said. According to broad guidelines issued by the Election Commission on Friday for holding polls during the coronavirus pandemic, voters will be provided gloves while using EVMs and COVID-19 patients in quarantine will be allowed to vote at the last hour of the polling day.
A separate set of guidelines would be issued for voters who are residing in areas notified as "containment zone", the Election Commission said. The poll panel has also extended the option of postal ballot for electors who are marked as persons with disabilities and those above 80 years.
Electors who are COVID-19 positive or are suspected of having the infection and in quarantine at home or at an institution can also exercise the postal ballot option. Bihar may become the first state to go for assembly elections amid the pandemic. The polls are due in October-November.