Campaign curfew

| Updated on: Jan 10, 2022
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Ban on rallies, road shows must continue through the elections, to avoid super-spreader events

At a time when an Omicron-driven Covid-19 surge is officially adding over 1.5 lakh new infections every day, the Election Commission has, in its wisdom, said that polls to the five Assemblies of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand are to be held as per schedule from February 10 over a whole month. Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sushil Chandra spelt out the rationale for conducting polls in unambiguous terms — that no Legislative Assembly can continue for longer than five years. The pandemic, the CEC has reckoned, does not constitute an “Emergency” as defined in Article 172 which can be proclaimed for deferring elections. This view will remain a subject of debate, given the uncertainty and health risk involved in conducting elections. That said, the Commission has evolved a “campaign curfew” norm to ensure the safety of election officials, government teachers and EC staff as also the 18.34 crore eligible voters in the five poll-bound States.

The precedent before the EC is obvious: the March-April 2021 Assembly elections in West Bengal, Assam, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and Kerala that preceded the devastating second wave. This time, the EC has devised stricter norms for campaigning. All public rallies, roadshows, padyatras , cycle/bike shows and processions have been banned till January 15. Candidates have been given the option of online nomination so that physical contact is reduced. All Central/State government officials to be deployed for polls have to be fully vaccinated. Election officials and employees will be treated as frontline staff and those eligible given the precautionary dose. Booths will be sanitised, and States have been directed to accelerate the pace of vaccination.

The ban on physical rallies has naturally evoked discontent among politicians. Yet, they have to be enforced because political parties have, time and again, exhibited an irresponsible streak — witness the ongoing padyatra by the Congress in Karnataka, which is all set to turn into a super-spreader event. Some, like Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav, have contended that a ban on rallies confers an advantage on digitally-savvy parties. The argument is flimsy, to say the least, given the perils of conducting a regular poll campaign. Contesting candidates and parties may put pressure on the EC to permit physical rallies after January 15. The EC should, however, stick to its “campaign curfew” policy right through the duration of the elections. The surging third wave, apparently less severe but very transmissible, is straining India’s fatigued healthcare workers, doctors and infrastructure. Many hospitals have had to stop surgeries and diagnostic procedures because doctors, nursing staff and other health workers are falling prey to the pandemic. Modelling studies, including one by IIT Kanpur, show that the current surge is likely to peak in the first or second week of February. Hence, any relaxation in the ban on physical rallies/roadshows leaves the field open for political parties to create super-spreader events. With the EC ruling out postponement of polls, the onus lies on it to ensure the safety of poll officials and voters.

Published on January 10, 2022

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