The election to the Bihar legislative assembly was unprecedented in several ways. First, in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was apprehension whether the polls would be possible at all. Later, several political parties clamoured for postponing the elections.
The Election Commission of India (ECI), after initial doubts, was inspired by the successful experiences of many countries, especially South Korea, which conducted its national elections in the midst of the pandemic with great success — and the highest-ever turnout. As many as 34 countries have conducted elections to their national assembly or presidential post while being engaged in the battle against the novel coronavirus.
To leave nothing to chance, the ECI consulted its counterparts in several countries and asked them to share their experiences before deciding to overrule all objections and go ahead with the elections. It did well to test the ground with Rajya Sabha polls as well as legislative council elections in various states under COVID-specific guidelines.
Equipped with such knowledge as well as its own experiences, the ECI issued COVID guidelines in August for the Bihar assembly polls. Besides the usual norms related to sanitising and social distancing, these guidelines included a reduction in the limit of electors per polling booth to 1,000, from the current 1,500, in order to prevent overcrowding.
The consequent addition of nearly 40,000 extra polling stations meant as many additional EVMs. To avoid crowding at the counting centres, the counting tables were reduced to seven per hall from 14.
Door-to-door canvassing was restricted to groups of five persons. Convoys of vehicles were to be broken after every five vehicles, instead of 10. The number of participants at the public meetings were restricted to that prescribed by the disaster management authority. Online facilities were provided for nominations, filing of affidavits and security deposits.
The Opposition parties highlighted the possibility of voter turnout going down due to the pandemic. The ECI’s answer to this was the decision to extend the postal ballot option to senior citizens over the age of 80, COVID-positive patients, persons with disabilities and voters employed in essential services, along with making use of its now famous SVEEP (Systematic Voter Education for Electoral Participation) programme. A satisfactory voter turnout proved the commission right.
A concern raised by some parties was that digital campaigning, desirable to keep crowds at bay, would give the BJP an unfair advantage as the party has more technical and financial resources. Another question that was raised was whether virtual rallies would replace door-to-door and large-scale physical campaigning, the soul of any democratic election. Virtual rallies have their own limitations, like inaccessibility to every nook and corner of rural, hilly and forest areas, especially because internet penetration in Bihar is as low as 37 per cent and smartphones are used by just 27 per cent of the state’s population.
The BJP was, indeed, the leader in virtual rallies. However, when the elections were actually announced, massive physical rallies were organised by most parties, causing serious concern to the ECI which later came down heavily on violators.
The commission faced other challenges as well — fake news and hate propaganda. The ECI has been proactive in dealing with both. It had drafted a Voluntary Code of Ethics in collaboration with social media platforms, allowing direct engagement between the two over problematic posts during an election season.
The recent expose by The Wall Street Journal of Facebook’s political leanings casts a shadow over the platform’s neutrality. As per the report, Facebook India, on several occasions, was averse to removing derogatory posts uploaded by the ruling party’s leaders. This brought ECI under the lens for unbiased oversight of the conduct of political parties and social media platforms.
One unprecedented development on the counting day was the ECI holding press conferences, not once or twice but four times, to answer all possible doubts and quell apprehensions and suspicions that arise when the margin of victory is low. In the very first briefing early Tuesday afternoon, the commission made it clear that, because of the special COVID-related measures, counting would be slow and it would go very late into the night. Bihar’s chief electoral officer mentioned that to prevent overcrowding, nearly 40 per cent extra polling booths had been put in place. This meant an additional 20-30 minutes for each of the extra 40,000 EVMs. The number of EVMs per counting table was also reduced from 14 to 7. Consequently, the number of rounds for counting and declaration of results increased by 40 to 50 per cent. This clarification preempted fears and rumours of fraud that normally fly thick and fast.
A major issue that was raised around midnight on Tuesday was about discrepancies in the winners’ lists. Questions were also raised about the delay in the declaration of results in about 10 constituencies. About the former, the ECI has assured complainants that each case will be investigated. In so far as the delay in announcement of results is concerned, it is normal to demand a recount of the postal ballots and ask for retabulation of the totals shown by each EVM; this causes some delay. When the margin of victory is less than the number of rejected postal ballots, their recount is mandatory. The decision by a margin of 12 votes in one constituency, a topic of interest in this election, must remind us of the case of CP Joshi, the then president of the Congress Party in Rajasthan, who lost by just one vote in 2008 and accepted the verdict with dignity.
After facing some serious questions during the general elections in 2019, that affected its image, the Bihar elections were an opportunity for the ECI to prove its efficiency and evenhandedness to every sceptic. At a time, when all countries are looking at each other for lessons, Bihar could be a leading example of successful election management — and the ECI of a leading election management agency.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 12, 2020 under the title ‘Clearing the Covid test’. The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and a distinguished Fellow at Ashoka University.
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