Ensuring Safe Polls
Ever since the announcement of poll dates for five states, the Election Commission (EC) has been attracting criticism from various quarters as holding elections in the midst of pandemic may prove to be a highly dangerous exercise. Citing the West Bengal example wherein the number of infections increased manifold during electioneering last year, detractors of EC argue that due to gross violations of Covid-related norms during campaigning, the pandemic situation will go out of hand. In a recent survey, 31 per cent of respondents demanded that polls in five states should be deferred until normalcy returns; while 41 per cent have opined that all election rallies should be stopped. Majority of the respondents favoured digital mode of campaigning. It may be mentioned here that a few weeks ago, taking a similar position, the Allahabad High Court urged EC to postpone the Assembly elections due to the threat posed by the lethal virus. But a closer look at the Constitution will reveal that EC has no power to defer an assembly poll as such an act will be considered as a violation of the constitutional mandate that provides a fixed term to every Assembly. Thus, the election authority is duty-bound to conduct elections before the expiry of the Assembly and should inform the Governor of the respective state once the election is over. After receiving the information from EC, the Governor constituted the new house to avoid any constitutional crisis as the house automatically stands dissolved as soon as its term expires. The term of the house can only be extended by the parliament by declaring emergency either due to war or the breakdown of law and order situation. In Independent India’s electoral history, such an emergency was declared thrice in case of Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and Assam, when insurgency was at its peak in these three states.
So, there is no point in demanding the postponement of Assembly elections in five states. Rather, proper efforts should be made for the implementation and adherence of proper Covid-19 norms. The Election Commission should be urged to ban all election rallies big or small at once, considering the nationwide surge in infections due to the Omicron variant. The commission can easily undertake such a step through an executive order as with the announcement of polls, the state administration works under EC. For the month-long Assembly elections in West Bengal last year, EC banned big rallies only during the last two phases, which allowed the situation to deteriorate. This time, the commission should not wait for the situation to worsen before imposing a ban on election rallies. At the same time, no candidate will be allowed to campaign with more than five persons and should refrain from entering the houses of the electorate. Emphasis should be given to digital campaigning. Apart from being cost effective, it will also help prevent the deadly virus from spreading. If implemented properly, these steps will definitely create a healthy electoral environment where the electorate can participate in the democratic process without the fear of being infected.