Amid the clamour for postponing the impending Bihar assembly elections, the Election Commission of India has put its foot down and announced the timely conduct of elections to the 243-member legislative assembly, set to complete its tenure in November.
This is not the first time that the EC would be holding polls during the coronavirus pandemic. After a few months of postponement, the Commission, quite successfully, from June onwards, administered the Rajya Sabha and legislative council elections of various states under strict COVID-specific guidelines.
We have seen how as many as 34 countries have conducted their national assembly or presidential elections while fighting against COVID-19. The most successful examples have been of South Korea and, our immediate neighbour, Sri Lanka.
Taking its cue from other countries’ management of their elections, the Election Commission has come up with its own set of rules that would be implemented during the Bihar elections. These include reduction of the number of electors per polling booth to 1,000 from the current 1,500; addition of 33,797 auxiliary polling stations to prevent over-crowding; and COVID-sensitive capacity-building of election officials. To avoid crowding at the counting centres, the counting tables have been reduced to seven per assembly constituency from 14, among other things.
The Opposition parties’ fear of poor voter turnout in the state election due to the pandemic has been partly taken care of with the EC’s decision to extend the postal ballot option to senior citizens over the age of 80, COVID-positive patients, persons with disabilities and voters in essential services, along with making use of its now famous SVEEP (Systematic Voter Education for Electoral Participation) programme and technological facilities to ensure voter education and mobilisation. If implemented well, the Bihar election could record a satisfactory voter turnout like in Sri Lanka, if not the highest, as reported in South Korea.
Even though speculation is rife that the EC might allow physical campaigning with a limited number of people, the political parties in Bihar are mostly likely to resort to digital campaigning, after months of protesting against it. The ball was set rolling in this direction by the BJP back in June when Home Minister Amit Shah addressed the people of Bihar through a virtual rally. Virtual rallies are going to be a dominant feature of digital campaigning, besides social media. These rallies seem promising and innovative as they would keep the crowds at bay. Additionally, the bandwagon that follows a political leader visiting different constituencies would come to a halt, reducing both the campaign costs and the COVID risk.
Can the virtual rallies replace the door-to-door and large-scale physical campaigning that are the heart and soul of any democratic election? Not really. Virtual rallies have their own limitations, like inaccessibility to every nook and corner of rural, hilly and forest areas, with the internet penetration in Bihar being an abysmal 37 per cent. For online communication through smartphones, the situation is grimmer owing to sparse usage of smartphones in Bihar, which stands at just 27 per cent, and patchy mobile network even in the cities. Against this backdrop, with no expenditure ceiling for political parties, the parties will go for expensive communication devices like projection screens, among other things, to increase their voter base.
This is where the issue of the level playing field is being raised by the Opposition parties. The arrangement of such facilities is evidently going to be a costly affair and the richer political parties will have a gala time in mobilising voters, putting small regional/local parties at a disadvantage. Under the winner-takes-all voting system like ours, missing out even a single household could have a negative effect on a party’s winning chances.
The problem of equal opportunity also exists on the other mode of digital campaigning, social media. With growing influence of social media, the generally technologically challenged political leaders and their parties have quickly adapted to this youthful platform though it varies widely across political parties, depending on their financial position. During the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, the BJP reportedly spent the highest amount of Rs 27 crore on Google, Facebook and their sister platforms for political ads, while the Congress was the distant second with Rs 5.6 crore. Although at the national level, where thousands of crores are spent, this is not a big amount, one can guess how much the ruling party must have gained by its higher investment in ads to woo the voters.
Other than social media funding, the Election Commission has another task in the realm of social media campaigning — fake news and hate propaganda. In both these areas, the Commission has been proactive. The recent example of its strict stance against hate propaganda came during legislative assembly elections of Delhi, when the Commission ordered Twitter to take down a communal post by a BJP leader (Kapil Mishra) and followed it up by asking the Delhi Police to file an FIR against him — setting a strong precedent. However, with the probability of physical campaigning being limited, the focus of all political parties and their candidates would be on the digital mode — allowing the social media platforms to be flooded with problematic posts.
The EC could, however, consider relaxing its stringent norms against old traditional methods like wall paintings, posters and flags. Maybe car, motorcycle and bicycle rallies with proper distancing could be encouraged for deep and wide reach with restricted costs.
Even though there exists a Voluntary Code of Ethics, issued by the ECI in collaboration with social media platforms, allowing a direct engagement of the Commission and these platforms over problematic posts during election season, the recent revelations of The Wall Street Journal regarding Facebook have cast a shadow over the platform’s neutrality. According to the report, Facebook India, on several occasions, was averse to removing derogatory posts uploaded by the ruling party’s leader. Against this backdrop, the implementation of a Voluntary Code of Ethics will be scrutinised and questioned by the Opposition political parties.
The Bihar election could be an opportunity for the Election Commission to prove its efficiency once again to every sceptic out there. At a time when all countries of the world are looking at each other for lessons, Bihar could provide a leading example of successful election management, and the ECI a leading electoral management body.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 21, 2020 under the title ‘The corona election’. The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and a Distinguished Fellow at Ashoka University.
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