'EC trod with caution, was ahead of curve in ensuring safety of voters, personnel': Sources on HC flak

By PTI
NEW DELHI: After the Madras High Court observed that the Election Commission must be held “singularly” responsible for the second wave of coronavirus in the country, sources said on Monday that the poll panel has trodden with caution all along to ensure COVID-19-free polls, first in Bihar and then in four states and a union territory.

They said while enforcing the Disaster Management Act to ensure COVID-19-appropriate behaviour is the responsibility of the State Disaster Management Authority, the Commission invoked its constitutional powers to place curbs on campaigning in West Bengal to reduce exposure of people to the virus.

“We were ahead of the curve in ensuring safety of voters and personnel in the pandemic,” a functionary said.

They said that after the successful conduct of the Bihar assembly elections in November 2020 involving 73 million voters at 1,06,000 polling booths, there was widespread appreciation of strength and capability of the constitutional authority.

The biggest stakeholder in democracy — the electorate — in Bihar reposed their faith and participated in numbers even more than the last assembly polls in the state.

The Madras High Court on Monday castigated the Election Commission over the COVID-19 second wave in the country, holding it “singularly” responsible for the spread.

The court called the poll panel “the most irresponsible institution” and even said its officials may be booked under murder charges.

When counsel for the EC told the judges that all necessary steps were implemented, the bench shot back saying that by allowing political parties to take out rallies and meetings, it (the Commission) had paved the way for the resurgence of the second wave of the deadly virus.

A functionary said, “From the pedestal of strength, we announced elections to five states in February 2021. By the way, the pandemic then was at its lowest stage. The number of new cases in the country in February were hovering around 11,000 new cases a day and all states and UTs had reported a decline in active cases in January-February. The vaccination was in full swing, signs of economic revival were visible.”

Despite overall improvement in the COVID-19 situation, general mood of overall revival and no input available on the likelihood of a second wave, the Commission decided to tread with caution and not lower the guards, the sources observed.

There was a persuasive suggestion to go back to 1,500 voters per polling station as opposed to 1,000 voters, which was resulting in 23,000 more booths (32 per cent increase) just in West Bengal and of course consequential tremendous increase in police and civil manpower and other logistics.

All protocols of COVID-19, including 1,000 voters per polling station, were enforced in all poll-going states on the same template as was very successfully developed during Bihar elections last year.

Elections to Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry were over on April 6 before the unprecedented rise in COVID-19 cases, they underlined.

The spread of the pandemic has been dynamic and so has been the response of the EC, the sources stressed.

In April itself, four directions were issued by the EC to check the spread of the virus amid electioneering.

The severity of the pandemic and its response strategy, including complete or conditional shutdown, is governed by the Disaster Management Act and is outside the remit of EC, they said.

“No national or state level lockdown was declared till April 17 (phase 5 polling in West Bengal) by the authorities administering the Act. EC still invoked its power under Article 324 of the Constitution and curtailed the campaign duration, silence period, restricted the campaigning time from 10am to 7 pm. All kinds of road shows and ‘padayatras’ and rallies were later banned and restricted the limit for public meeting to 500,” another functionary said.

The sources cited electoral laws to say that clubbing of the last three phases of polling in West Bengal as demanded by the Trinamool Congress was not feasible.

In any case, it was ensured that there is no campaigning between 7th and 8th phase by further extending silence period to 72 hours, they said.

“In any case, the Commission kept on tightening Covid protocols, finally banning all rallies, road shows. There are large number of cases, including criminal cases, being registered for violation of EC guidelines.”

“If even temporary disfranchising of voters was to be considered as an option, the hue and cry at an unimaginable level of high decibel would have been the outcome and perhaps rightly so.

Implications of not completing elections timely, possibly leading to situation of conducting at a later stage under extended term or President’s Rule might be much more damaging and attract sharper objections of favouring one and acting against another,” the functionary said.

The coronavirus situation remained grim with India’s daily COVID-19 infection tally and death toll touching new peaks in the past few days.

The country recorded 3,52,991 cases, the highest so far, taking the tally of cases to 1,73,13,163 while active cases have crossed the 28-lakh mark, according to the Union Health Ministry data updated on Monday.

The death toll increased to 1,95,123 with a record 2,812 new fatalities, the data updated at 8 am showed.