Ban public meetings for entire elections to five states to contain virus

Devsagar Singh

New Delhi, Jan 9: Now that the Election Commission has formally announced polling dates for five states beginning Feb 10, political parties are bound to intensify  campaigning. Considering the current surge in coronavirus infections, rallies and public meetings have been banned till January 15 when the EC will review the situation. It is anybody’s guess that the pandemic is not going  away anytime soon. The week-long restriction is, therefore, not enough and the commission will be forced to extend it further.

According to some experts, the current wave is expected to peak around mid-February, just when the electioneering will be in full steam. The EC will have no choice but to continue restrictions. The moot point, however, is how to enforce them in letter and spirit. Political parties will leave nothing to chance, corona notwithstanding, to woo the voters. There will be campaigning physically by all parties. In the process, social distancing  will be the first casualty. Even street corner meetings will attract crowds and there is little the EC observers can do. The police presence in such meetings is only in name. A constable or two near the venue or an EC deputed personnel will hardly matter much. So what is the way out? In times like these, the need of the hour is to completely stop all forms of physical  campaigning , including corner meetings and door to door interaction. This can only worsen the corona situation, given the nature of the omicron variant of the virus.

Political parties  are free to use virtual mode and social media for election campaigning. Almost two years of the pandemic  has taught many lessons on distance communication.

The election commission can distribute time slots on  state-run  broadcasters like Doordarshan  and Akashvani  or other earmarked channels to political parties based on their past performance on the ballot box. The EC must be innovative in challenging times like these. The Government should come in aid of the EC , if necessary in consultations with Opposition parties.

It will have obvious advantages. Coronavirus spread will be under check. Incidence of election-related violence will be substantially reduced. Candidates and parties will have to incur less expenditure. Overall, the election will be cleaner.

Let the pandemic become an opportunity to bring about electoral reforms in the country. It is common knowledge that all governments and political parties revel in  election exercises with enthusiastic participation of large number of political workers. Elections become festivals involving  huge monetary implications . Hundreds of  crores of rupees are spent without adding to the economy.

The election commission being a constitutional body with vast powers can exercise its authority on positive changes. Public support will not be wanting for such moves. Strong CEC like late T.N.Seshan  is an example. He brought about several changes in his time. Indeed, Seshan was a terror to political parties, including the ruling party, during elections in his tenure in the early nineties. He showed that the EC is no adjunct to the government of the day.   The pandemic has put added responsibility on the EC for safe conduct of elections in five states. It must live up to  it without jeopardizing public health.

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