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Friday, May 07, 2021

Irresponsible… must perhaps face murder charge: Madras HC on Election Commission

The scathing observations came four days after the Calcutta High Court had censured the EC for not doing enough to ensure that political parties were following appropriate Covid protocols amid the surging second wave.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Chennai |
Updated: April 27, 2021 1:55:52 am
StalinFile photo of Udhayanidhi Stalin campaigning at Kannankurichi in Salem. (Twitter/Udhaystalin)

COMING DOWN heavily on the Election Commission for “not stopping political parties” from violating Covid protocols during their campaign rallies for Assembly polls in four states and an Union Territory over the last month, the Madras High Court said Monday that murder charges should probably be imposed on the panel for being “the only institution responsible for the situation that we are in today”.

The scathing observations came four days after the Calcutta High Court had censured the EC for not doing enough to ensure that political parties were following appropriate Covid protocols amid the surging second wave.

“You have been singularly lacking any kind of exercise of authority. You have not taken measures against political parties holding rallies despite every order of this court saying ‘maintain Covid protocol, maintain Covid protocol’,” the Madras High Court observed.

Remarking that the panel has been “the most irresponsible over the last few months in not stopping political parties from wanton abuse of the Covid-19 protocol”, a bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy said: “You should be put up on murder charges probably.”

It asked whether the EC, which is a Constitutional body, “was on another planet when poll rallies were held”.

The observations were made by the bench while hearing a petition filed by AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu Transport Minister M R Vijayabhaskar seeking directions for the EC to implement strict measures during counting on May 2 at his Karur constituency, where 77 candidates have contested.

The bench also directed the EC to prepare a blueprint before May 2 on how Covid protocol will be maintained so that “this state does not succumb to your idiosyncrasies any further”. Otherwise, the court warned, it will order the counting to be stopped.

Later, issuing an interim order on the plea, the court said: “Despite repeated orders of this court, going on like a broken record at the foot of almost every order on an election petition, that Covid protocol ought to be maintained during the campaign time, the significance of adhering to such protocols may have been lost on the Election Commission, going by the silence on the part of the Election Commission, as campaigning and rallies were conducted without distancing norms being maintained and in wanton disregard of the other requirements of the protocol.”

The interim order stated that the Election Commission should have planned safety measures for May 2 as there is hardly a week left for counting day. “The matter will appear on April 30, 2021 to review the situation when a complete picture as to adequate steps having been taken at all counting centres should be indicated by the Election Commission,” it stated.

Earlier, the court reminded the EC’s counsel that it is all about “survival and protection” now and that “everything else comes next”.

“Politics or no politics, whether the counting takes place in a staggered manner or deferred… at no cost (should) the counting of votes on May 2 result in being a catalyst to a further surge. Public health is of paramount importance and it is distressing that Constitutional authorities have to be reminded,” the court observed.

Speaking to The Indian Express, an EC official said: “The text of the interim written order of the Honourable High Court of Madras does not have any reference to the purported observations made during the hearing in the court.”

The first election in the country after the pandemic broke out last February was held in Bihar in October-November, with the EC putting in place Covid protocols such as limiting the number of voters to 1,000 at one polling station, down from the earlier limit of 1,500.

The next set of elections, for West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry, started on March 27 and most of it was wrapped up by April 6, except for West Bengal where polling ends on April 29.

Monday witnessed the seventh and penultimate phase of the eight-phase elections in West Bengal involving 34 seats and 284 candidates with over 86 lakh registered voters.

The elections, particularly in West Bengal, were marked by huge rallies that were addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

On Thursday, hours after Modi cancelled four rallies in the state citing several high-level meetings to tackle the Covid crisis, the EC banned roadshows, vehicle rallies and public meetings of more than 500 people, noting that political parties and candidates were “still not adhering to the prescribed safety norms”.

On the same day, the Calcutta High Court expressed dissatisfaction with the EC over the enforcement of Covid norms during the election process. Hearing PILs seeking the enforcement of Covid protocol, a division bench presided by Chief Justice T B N Radhakrishnan told the EC that issuing circulars and holding meetings on the issue were not enough.

Mamata welcomes Madras HC order, demands withdrawal of central forces who may be infected with Covid

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Monday demanded withdrawal of central forces to contain Covid spread in West Bengal in the next phase of polling, while welcoming the Madras High Court’s observations that the Election Commission could not avoid blame for the spread of Covid.

“I welcome the Madras High Court order, which clearly said the EC cannot escape its responsibility. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and EC are responsible for the (current) situation (of Covid spreading in the state),” Banerjee alleged at a workers’ meeting in North Kolkata where party candidates and workers were present.

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