View: Parties, electors, managers in Bihar caught between the vote and the virus

By Akshay Rout

It would be interesting to know the views of political parties about what the nature of the election campaign is to be in pandemic-stricken Bihar. The Election Commission has been soliciting the views of political parties from time to time on critical issues as part of its consultative process, they being the most important stakeholders in elections after, of course, the electors. But the Covid context does not have a precedence. Political parties do, in a manner, represent the interests of people and hence are supposed to be accountable while conveying their positions. In formally calling for their views, what is being expected of them is a heightened ownership of a series of sensitive decisions that could unfold in a uniquely placed election.

Political parties are being called to a higher order of responsibility beyond their cut-out tasks of fighting and winning elections. The two obligations do not look exactly complementary.

New Dilemma

In terms of electoral calculations, political parties are left to ponder as to which social and demographic groupings are likely to turn out in higher numbers if polls are conducted under the shadow of Covid and what could be their political inclinations; whose supporters would be better ‘corona resistant’ on polling day. The dilemma for political parties is quite real, weighed between the stakes in power in one of the most politically critical states of India and the moral burden to protect the life and health of their own people.

The debate between life and livelihood has hardly been settled and the state is on the horns of another dilemma –– that between life and democracy. Bihar, a latecomer on the high-infection table, is dangerously perched for a possible explosion of numbers, compounded by a health infrastructure under stress. While Bihar has 13.5% of the country’s population, its share of Covid infections is only about 3% yet. But the situation is fast changing and the best hope as the state inches towards a general election, is not a good one.

Catchy slogans, and catchier lampooning of these –– a pattern typical in a Bihar election is just about taking off but social distancing is a dampener. The odd canvassing by any party is being held by critics as a digression from the fight against corona, and as being insensitive to the humanitarian crisis. It may not be surprising if the protection provided or not provided to people in the pandemic distress becomes the only electoral issue.

Rough Terrain

Periodic elections are at the heart of India’s democratic system. The motivation to hold a correct election in the stipulated time constitutes the re-affirmation of this faith. The legal framework, led by Article 324 of the Indian Constitution, provides all resources of the state at the disposal of the election management to facilitate a democratic renewal periodically, with efficiency. A seriously augmented level of resources: personnel, spaces, logistics, equipment, and technology –– especially digital connectivity –– will be required; and the mobilisation is happening at the central, state and district levels. The benefit of postal ballot now covers the Covid-infected and Covid suspects in quarantine. The Election Commission has extended special treatment for those affected by Covid, and ex-gratia compensation for casualties from the infection, while deployed on election duties.

Towards a Covid Code

Irrespective of the adequacy of enabling provisions, how much of the warriors engaged in fighting Covid can be pulled into election duty, will remain a practical question. In Bihar, the third largest electorate with over 7 crore electors, it could be a challenge just to keep sanitised and safe the essential action of the finger press of EVM keys and application of ink on the finger.

From the time of the first elections in 1951, along with the changing contours of party politics, the socio-economic dynamics and new technology, the Election Commission has developed well-documented guidelines to regulate and facilitate campaigns. A type of Corona Code of Conduct could be the latest chapter to be added.

Onus on Parties

A number of Opposition parties from Bihar, earlier in July, conveyed their concern over holding elections amid a pandemic situation while pointing out the limitations of a digital only campaign among a population that is far from adequately connected. There have been varied opinions about access to inter-personal communication during the campaigns. But when it comes to individually making their case, political parties can tend to be more mindful about their electoral gains than anything else. The present demand lies in securing the health of both people and the polls. The Model Code of Conduct, despite all debates, remains one of the finest examples of willing adherence to agreed restraints.

No one should dispute that the time has come to volunteer another set of self-regulations. The onus is clearly on political parties.

( Author is former Director General, Election Commission of India. Views expressed are personal)

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