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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

A Test of Faith: Polls Amidst Pandemic

Along with the raging virus, the ECI will have to deal with threats of violence in the upcoming elections to state assemblies

Written by Akshay Rout |
March 18, 2021 8:15:49 pm
The ECI retains its objective of “safe and enhanced participation” in the pandemic context as it did for Bihar. The make-or-break stakes in the forthcoming elections are best reflected in curious alliances and extreme positionings and the pressure can only be accentuated as seat sharing and nominations proceed.

The announcement of the Model Code of Conduct should force a semblance of peace and sanity in the super-charged atmosphere in poll-bound Assam, Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, especially West Bengal where passionate dispute tends to aggravate to violence. About 187 million electors, a fifth of India’s electorate, are poised to vote in 824 assembly constituencies while all states are simultaneously engaged in a desperate bid to ramp up vaccination and block the coronavirus mutants.

It seemed that the electoral system had successfully seen through the COVID fire with the Bihar polls a few months ago, but the pandemic refuses to leave the election scene. India is in the middle of the world’s largest vaccination drive with a target to inoculate a critical 300 million by July. This has demanded constant scaling up of operations.

The provision of early jabs for election officials is an indicator of the special situation under which the upcoming elections are to be conducted. It’s not surprising that COVID protocols constitute a large chunk of the ECI’s press note. A staggering 2.7 lakh booths have been mobilised for polling from March 27 to April 29, mainly to reduce the burden of voters from 1,500 to 1,000 per station and an extra hour has been allowed for voting, both as parts of a COVID protocol that was earlier tried out in Bihar. The addition in polling stations is as much as about 90 per cent in Kerala.

Sharp and often polarisining discourses centring around development, corruption, law and order, ideology and identity, the CAA, farm laws and local issues hold sway depending on the turf, but the virus remains the unavoidable backdrop. However, there is surely much more in the hands of election managers than gloves and sanitisers.

If the eight-phase polling for West Bengal is unprecedented, so is the aggression and bitterness amongst the major contenders, besides the history of electoral violence in the politically-vibrant state. West Bengal has an elector-population ratio of 0.68 that is well ahead of the national average. The state has added about 8 million electors over the 2016 elections for its 294 seats, making the task that much more complex. Amidst anticipation of action and preventive action, the Election Commission has clarified that the advance deployment of central police force is for all poll-going states, and not for West Bengal alone. Reports suggest that a large number of booths have been identified as sensitive in West Bengal, and several in Assam as well, where enough fault lines exist to create volatile situations across its 126 constituencies.

Vulnerability is decided through a detailed review and feedback system well before the polls to locate any apprehensions of intimidation or undue influence. Identified areas will be understandably under EC’s active watch, where a plethora of specially-appointed observers will maintain a hawk’s eye besides the usual set of central observers, police observers and expenditure observers.

The opting for single-phase poll in all southern states and multi-phase in the east is a pointer to the prevailing security concerns. The initiative of large-scale webcasting of the polling process combined with deployment of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) across all polling stations can be a shot in the arm for transparency, instilling confidence in the process. The new digital media guidelines of the central government should come
immediately handy for election managers to deal with this slippery area of campaign regulation. The full Election Commission has already visited all four states and the UT during the last few weeks to take stock of the ground situation.

Interestingly Tamil Nadu, with equally feisty politics, and politically-aligned electorate, has never been troubled by any significant level of violence. Intrusion of money power, and not violence, has been the issue in the contest for its 234 seats. Electoral inducements including cash and alcohol have dented Tamil Nadu’s otherwise colourful campaigns often involving cinestars, many of whom have moved into direct political action this time around.

Elections in Aravakurichi and Thanjavur constituencies were postponed in 2016 due to reports of distribution of huge sums of money and gifts to voters. During the last Lok Sabha polls, Tamil Nadu topped the list of states with seizures of cash, liquor, narcotics, gold, silver etc. worth Rs 952 crore. Of this, precious metals alone were to the tune of Rs 710 crore. ECI’s flying squads will be expected to do a lot of hard work once again.

The infection of material inducement has not spilled over to the adjacent state of Kerala. However, competition in the state’s 140 seats, abetted by both traditional and evolving social dynamics, has been tough on every occasion with a discerning electorate facing up to a range of skilled leaders.

Polls in Puducherry, traditionally an extension of the politics of neighbouring Tamil Nadu, has been spiced up by the sudden and dramatic developments earlier this month, with these resonating in the campaign.

The four states and Puducherry have belonged to the high turnout zone, notching around 70 per cent footfall, election after election, whether for Lok Sabha or Assembly. The voting has moved several points ahead in the last decade, nudged by ECI’s focused intervention, SVEEP, which pushes for citizens’ engagement. In 2016, all five elections got past the 75 per cent turnout level while Assam registered a record 85 per cent voting and West Bengal was a little behind with 83 per cent.

The ECI retains its objective of “safe and enhanced participation” in the pandemic context as it did for Bihar. The make-or-break stakes in the forthcoming elections are best reflected in curious alliances and extreme positionings and the pressure can only be accentuated as seat sharing and nominations proceed. On the date of counting, May 2, certain political groups and leaders may be staring at political survival. The poll managers, for whom Bihar was a litmus test, will once again have to shield the sacredness of the franchise not only from the coronavirus but more importantly from violence.

One fervently hopes this round of the country’s democratic exercise does not get hotter than the advancing summer and the faith and pride in the ballot remains unshaken for everyone.

The writer is former director general, Election Commission of India and currently visiting professor at Central University of Odisha. Views expressed are personal

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