One year and more after the pandemic, West Bengal contends with a double whammy ~ a deadly resurgence of the virus in parallel to the state assembly election. It thus comes about that the Election Commission of India has been rapped on the knuckles by a Division Bench of Calcutta High Court (coram: Radhakrishnan, CJ; and Arijit Banerjee, J).
Hence the remarkably pertinent observation of the Bench that the circulars on Covid-19 protocols during elections mean nothing unless they are implemented. Quite plainly, they have not. The subtext must that the certitudes of public health and the renewal of the tryst with democracy are being followed in the breach rather than observance.
As much is palpable if the queues of voters at polling booths and the crowds at rallies, cutting across party lines, are any indication. With every rule in the book thus flouted, the Bench has asked for yet another “very short affidavit”. On closer reflection, it is the parties and politics in the Bengal court that must accept significant responsibility for the Covid surge, deadlier than it was last year.
This time, the scourge has been compounded by the endemic dearth of medical oxygen and vaccines. Confusion has been worse confounded as the Election Commission has been rather ineffectual as regards execution of the protocol. The frequent shuffling of senior police officers, including West Bengal’s DGP, scarcely addresses the core issue.
Just as attendance has been checked at religious shrines ~ even for weddings ~ so too could it have been controlled for political rallies coupled with strict enforcement of distancing outside polling booths. “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,” the Bench observed.
“Issuance of circulars and holding of meetings by themselves do not discharge the onerous responsibility of the Election Commission of India”. The High Court has underlined the expected confidence that the Indian polity will have on the EC to carry forward the mechanism of upholding democracy even during a pandemic and when the challenge is heightened by the Covid-19 virus and its variants.
The Bench has taken note of the EC’s guidelines on the surge of Covid-19. The acknowledgment has been clothed with the caveat that the guidelines must of necessity be scrupulously followed by the electorate, and implemented by the administration “in the strictest possible manner”. As it turns out, election campaigns throughout the state reaffirm a scant regard for the protocol.
Clearly, the Election Commission has been a victim of collective disobedience of matters relating to public health. Which explains the stinging punchline ~ “Circulars are not merely advisories to be wrapped by the political parties and the public at large”. Sad to reflect, the EC circulars have suffered the worst of both worlds.