How COVID Swelled

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EC failed to enforce COVID protocol in poll campaigns

After allowing mass gatherings at political rallies and road shows in West Bengal for weeks, which led to a huge surge in the COVID-19 infections in the state, the Election Commission on Thursday banned roadshows, vehicle rallies and public meetings of more than 500 people. In its order the EC said that the political parties and candidates were not adhering to the prescribed safety norms during campaigning. The EC has withdrawn all the permissions for political gatherings it had issued earlier. The EC ban came after the Calcutta High Court censured it for dereliction of duty. A High Court bench led by Chief Justice Thottathil Radhakrishnan came down heavily on the Election Commission and said that the EC cannot claim to be discharging its onerous responsibility merely by issuing circulars and holding meetings with political parties. The court pulled up the EC for not doing enough to ensure that the parties followed the notified norms to contain the spread of coronavirus despite the fact it wielded powers to enforce rules.

The High Court observations came in three public interest litigation cases in which the petitioners expressed concern that people participating in the election campaigns were not adhering to COVID norms and expressed apprehension that it may result in a serious spike in Covid-19 cases in West Bengal, which along with other parts of the country is in the second wave of the pandemic. And the contention of the petitioners was supported by hard facts. West Bengal reported a record 11,948 new cases of coronavirus infections on Thursday, taking the tally to over 7 lakh with the active caseload in the state being 68,798. The COVID cases in the state before the election campaign began were in hundreds but they began to shoot up as it progressed, scaling new heights every passing day. Incidentally during the last hearing, the court was informed by the state chief electoral officer that the commission has made it clear that in case of breach of strict observance of COVID protocols during election rallies, meetings and roadshows, it will not hesitate to ban them but failed to exercise its powers.

Top leaders of political parties, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had planned meetings to campaign for their candidates. Gandhi was first to cancel his meetings citing abnormal rise in COVID cases. He subsequently tested positive for coronavirus and had to quarantine himself. While Modi cancelled his meetings on Thursday to deal with the situation emerging out of a sharp rise in COVID cases, others did so only after the EC order restricting the number of attendees at the meeting. What was puzzling was that despite the fact that country was in the midst of a second wave, top political leaders continued with the campaign, including roadshows, some of them without face masks, not only in West Bengal but in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry too where elections are going on. It was perhaps this insensitive behaviour on the part of top leaders that made state leaders and workers to ignore COVID appropriate conduct which led to huge increase in fresh cases.

The chief electoral officer of West Bengal admitted that the EC failed to discharge its authority despite many complaints of violations of COVID appropriate protocol being brought to its notice. Let us hope the law enforcement officials will now enforce the ban and ensure that the number of people at public meetings, including those virtually addressed by top leaders, is limited to 500. It is regrettable to note that the EC, in spite of having considerable powers, failed to ensure that state and central leaders campaigned and worked within the parameters of COVID discipline. That EC acted following a criticism by the High Court goes to show that most agencies, including those having statutory powers, prefer to act against illegalities only on the directions of the judiciary. It is time that agencies like EC exhibit their independence and work as per the mandated duties without waiting for directions from the judiciary, else they could be seen as subservient to political masters.