The Election Commission of India set the ball rolling Saturday for Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Punjab and Manipur, announcing a schedule spread over seven phases between February 10 and March 7, and concluding with the counting of votes on March 10.
While Uttar Pradesh will vote in seven phases on February 10, 14, 20, 23, 27, March 3 and 7, polling in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Goa will be held on February 14. Manipur will vote in two phases on February 27 and March 3.
The Model Code of Conduct came into effect immediately after the announcement of the schedule.
Chandra said total electors across the five states were over 18 crore with 24.9 lakh first-time voters.
While the term of the current Uttar Pradesh Assembly is scheduled to end in May, those of the other states are slated to end in March.
The poll panel announced a slew of curbs on rallies and campaigning given the pandemic.
“There were a lot of queries on this (Covid-19) issue. The decision to go ahead was taken after much discussion, the situation is very dynamic… Article 172 (1) of the Constitution gives the period of any state Assembly at maximum five years… Holding of timely elections is the essence of democratic governance and this task has been given to the Election Commission,” Chandra said.
The Commission also decided to extend the poll timing by one hour in all Assembly constituencies except in areas affected by Left Wing Extremism.
“No roadshow, padyatra, cycle/bike/vehicle rally and procession shall be allowed till 15 January,” Chandra said.
“No physical rally of political parties or probable candidates or any other group related to election shall be allowed till 15 January. The Commission shall subsequently review the situation and issue further instructions accordingly,” he said.
“However, physical rallies during the campaign period, as and when permitted after the decision of the Commission, shall be conducted subject to adherence to extant Covid-19 guidelines,” he said.
Chief Secretaries of all poll-going states have been directed to accelerate the first and second dose of vaccination to all eligible citizens.
The surge in Covid cases and the spread of Omicron pose a challenge and the ECI has, therefore, banned roadshows, rallies until January 15. It will review the situation thereafter. The other measures taken are a reduction in the number of electors in a polling station, and raising the candidate expenditure limit to encourage digital, virtual campaigning.
“The Commission has directed that all central/state government officials deployed for election duty shall be doubly vaccinated. On the recommendation of ECI, the Union Health Ministry has issued orders on 8th February 2021 that all election officials and employees will be treated as frontline workers and all eligible officials shall be given a precautionary booster dose accordingly.”
There will be maximum 1250 electors instead of 1500 electors in a polling station.
“Further, political parties and candidates are advised to conduct their campaign as much as possible through digital/virtual/ media platforms /mobile based mode instead of physical mode ensuring strict compliance of Covid safety norms,” Chandra said.
On Thursday, the Election Commission had also announced a hike in the expenditure limit for candidates to Rs 95 lakh (up from Rs 70 lakh) each for Lok Sabha elections, and Rs 40 lakh (up from Rs 28 lakh) for Assembly polls.
Chandra said the increased poll expenditure limit for candidates in all Assembly elections is to help them meet expenses on digital modes of communication.
The Commission had come under heavy criticism during the West Bengal Assembly elections which was spread over eight phases over five weeks between March and April 2021 as India was grappling with the second wave—the deadliest in terms of the death toll and the number of cases in the country. This forced the poll panel to finally restrict campaigning towards the remaining two phases of the elections.
After the Calcutta High Court sought action from the Election Commission, it ordered cancellation of all rallies and restricted meetings only to allow no more than 500 people.
The Assembly elections in the five states are taking place at a time when the ruling BJP is facing the repercussions of its retreat on the controversial farm laws and is also working to overcome criticism of its handling of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Booster doses for senior citizens (with comorbidities) and frontline workers, including officials on election duty, will start January 10.