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Sunday, May 09, 2021

Bengal polls: EC bans physical campaigning, expresses ‘anguish’ over flouting of Covid norms

The Election Commission order, however, continues to permit gatherings of up to 500 people in West Bengal.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: April 23, 2021 8:02:26 am
Crowd at an election rally in Darjeeling, West Bengal. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

The Election Commission (EC) on Thursday banned roadshows, vehicle rallies, and public meetings of more than 500 people in West Bengal, noting that political parties and candidates were “still not adhering to the prescribed safety norms” during campaigning.

Permissions already given for such events stood withdrawn, the Commission said.

The directive came hours after Calcutta High Court censured the EC for not doing enough to ensure that political parties were following appropriate Covid-19 protocols amid the devastating second wave of infections.

“We are unable to reconcile the fact that the Election Commission of India is not able to update us as to what action by way of enforcement of the circulars has been obtained,” a Bench of Chief Justice Thottathil B Radhakrishnan and Justice Arijit Banerjee said.

“Issuance of circulars and holding of meetings by themselves do not discharge the onerous responsibility of the Election Commission of India…in due performance of not only the statutory power and authority under the Representation of People Act…but the confidence that the Indian polity would have on it to carry forward the mechanism of upholding the democracy by use of requisite facilities even in pandemic times…,” the court said.

West Bengal reported a record 11,948 new cases of coronavirus infection in the 24 hours up to Thursday evening. The active caseload in the state is now 68,798. Fifty-six people have died in the 24 hours up to Thursday, the state government said in its daily Covid-19 bulletin.

Asked why the Commission had continued to permit gatherings of up to 500 people and not banned campaigning altogether, a senior official told The Indian Express: “We can’t impose a ban on campaigning since people in the state are free to move around even today.

“The cap of 500 people will encourage parties to hold more virtual rallies, which could be relayed to smaller gatherings as opposed to lakhs meeting at one place for a physical rally,” the official said.

The order noted the Commission was “anguished” that candidates and parties were refusing to follow Covid-19 protocols, making it difficult for the state and district election machinery to enforce the poll body’s directions properly.

The Commission’s state machinery is learned to have issued show cause notices to parties and candidates, and filed cases under the NDMA Act on Thursday for violation of Covid safety protocols during campaigning. According to sources, two notices were issued to the BJP for violations in North 24-Parganas district, and one each to the TMC, BJP, and Congress in Malda district.

Thirteen cases have been filed under section 51(B) of NDMA Act for violation of protocols in Birbhum district, of which two each are against the BJP and TMC, and one each against the Congress and CPM, the sources said.

Soon after the EC order, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee cancelled all her scheduled meetings.

“In the wake of upsurge in #COVID19 cases across the country and the ECI Order dated 22nd April, 2021, I am cancelling all my prescheduled meetings and we will reach out to the people virtually. We will be sharing the updated schedule of the virtual meetings shortly,” she said in a tweet.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had cancelled all his public meetings in Bengal on Friday. Modi will instead address the people of Bengal virtually.

On Monday, the BJP said that it would not hold any meeting with more than 500 people, including those addressed by Modi.

The sixth phase of voting in the state took place on Thursday. Two more phases are scheduled for April 26 and April 29. Votes will be counted on May 2.

The High Court was hearing three petitions that contended that the EC had no power to implement pandemic guidelines in the conduct of elections, and that the court should, therefore, step in.

During the last hearing on Tuesday, the court had perused an affidavit by the Chief Electoral Officer, West Bengal, which submitted that “the Commission has made it clear by its Circular dated 09.04.2021…that in case of breach of strict observance of Covid Protocols during election rallies, meetings, campaigning etc. the Commission will not hesitate in banning public meetings, rallies of the defaulting candidate/star campaigners/political leaders”.

This submission, the court had said in its order on Tuesday, “obviously means that the Chief Election Commission and the Chief Electoral Officer will be at liberty to utilise such Government officials and police force as may be necessary to ensure strict compliance with its guidelines in public domain”.

On Thursday, the court observed that “We are not satisfied with the materials on record to state that the Election Commission of India and its officers on ground in West Bengal have enforced their circulars.”

It underlined that “circulars are not merely advisories to be wrapped up by the political parties or those involved in the political propaganda or even the public at large”.

Rather, the EC’s circulars “show the route map and the protocol for human behaviour, meaning thereby the behaviour of the political parties, their workers, the people at large and responsible management by the officers including the police and other forces under the command of the Election Commission of India”, the court said.

The court directed the EC to make “submissions with a very short affidavit reflecting on whatever we have stated”. Given the urgency of the matter, the court posted it “as the first item tomorrow” (Friday).

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