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Election Commission Should Ensure Level Playing Field For All Parties in Bihar Assembly Polls: Former CEC

The parties will go for expensive communication devices like projection screens, among other things, to increase their voter base. (File photo of RJD's Lalu Prasad Yadav and CM Nitish Kumar)

The parties will go for expensive communication devices like projection screens, among other things, to increase their voter base. (File photo of RJD's Lalu Prasad Yadav and CM Nitish Kumar)

Former Chief Election Commissioner TS Krishnamurthy made the remark when asked about fellow ex-CEC SY Quraishi's Friday article that underscored how parties with deep pockets would use expensive canvassing devices and strategies to overcome curbs on campaigning prompted by the Covid-19 crisis.

With the Election Commission having announced curbs on physical campaigning (not more than five people including the candidate allowed to do door-to-door campaigns), on road shows (not more than five vehicles allowed in a convoy) and on political meetings, the upcoming assembly election in Bihar is likely going to see a mix of digital rallies and restricted physical canvassing by the parties.

The unprecedented scale of digital campaigns that’s likely to take place in the assembly polls, and the curbs on physical political campaigns because of Covid-19 have prompted experts to raise red flags about the handicaps that some cash-strapped parties may suffer in reaching out to the public.

Former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi on Friday wrote, in an opinion piece, “Can the virtual rallies replace the door-to-door and large-scale physical campaigning that are the heart and soul of any democratic election? Not really.” He went on to describe the abysmal internet penetration in the state (37%) and the low proportion of people with smartphones (27%).

“Against this backdrop, with no expenditure ceiling for political parties, the parties will go for expensive communication devices like projection screens, among other things, to increase their voter base. This is where the issue of the level playing field is being raised by the Opposition parties,” Quraishi wrote in his opinion piece.

Parties in the opposition like the RJD and Congress, and even those within the NDA, such as the LJP, have been requesting the Election Commission to postpone the polls because of the outbreak of Covid-19 and destruction caused by floods. RJD leader Tejashwi Prasad Yadav has been crying foul about the restrictions on door-to-door campaigns, and voicing his disapproval of the digital rallies held by the BJP and JD(U) at a time when the state is dealing with several crises.

Three districts of Bihar figure in the top 10 of the country with the highest Covid-19 positivity rate, and floods are estimated to have affected close to 82 lakh people in 16 districts of the state. The two calamities, along with the costs of ensuring care for the returning migrant labourers, has put a huge financial stress on the state. On top of this, the economic burden for conducting the upcoming polls, which will have to be borne by the state, according to reports quoting election commission officials, is estimated to be around Rs 625 crore, far greater than even the cost of conducting last year’s Lok Sabha polls – Rs 535 crore.

How strongly do these factors weigh in when the Election Commission assesses the poll preparedness of the state?

“The Election Commission has to be confident that the majority in the state will come out and vote in the polls. If there is apprehension that polling percentage will drop for any number of reasons, then EC takes the call accordingly,” said former Chief Election Commissioner TS Krishnamurthy.

Krishnamurthy was the 13th Chief Election Commissioner, who supervised the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. “I don’t know the ground situation myself. How many districts are affected by floods, that is for the EC to see. But what I can tell you is that the Election Commission’s efforts have always been to conduct elections on time,” he said.

On the question raised by Quraishi on some political parties getting a head start over others because of their deeper pockets that are required to fund massive digital campaigns, Krishnamurthy said, “This will be an important factor, for all political parties should have equal opportunities. If you are overlooking serious factors that are impeding the political campaigns of some political parties, then you are not giving them equal opportunities.”

He said that it was for the Election Commission to decide, based on on-the-spot verification, about the claims made by the parties with regards to unequal playing grounds, and satisfy itself.