The Election Commission has the requisite powers to take strict measures like banning rallies and countermanding polls for violation of COVID-19 guidelines during campaigning, but it will be an uphill task to ensure compliance, according to former chief election commissioners.
Whether the ECI retains the tough superintendent mantle it assumed in the 1990s will depend on how much political will parties across the spectrum are ready to show.
The Election Commission has the requisite powers to take strict measures like banning rallies and countermanding polls for violation of COVID-19 guidelines during campaigning, but it will be an uphill task to ensure compliance, according to former chief election commissioners. Campaigning is on for Bihar assembly polls as well as for by-elections in other states, and the EC has already cautioned parties that penal provisions can be invoked against them by district authorities for violations.
While most of the former CECs said implementing health guidelines during campaigning is not easy given the number of candidates, parties and voters involved, two of them said the EC could take “demonstrative action” such as postponing polls in a few constituencies and banning rallies to show that it means business. The Election Commission has taken a serious view of “utter violation” of social distancing norms during poll campaigning and leaders addressing public meetings without wearing masks in complete disregard of its guidelines.
In an advisory issued to presidents and general secretaries of all recognised national and state parties on Wednesday, the poll panel said chief electoral officers and the district machinery would be expected to invoke appropriate and relevant penal provisions against candidates concerned as well as organisers responsible for such violations. Responding to a question on how the EC would enforce the guidelines, a senior functionary said the Commission has all the means to ensure implementation.
“The more reports we get of violations, the more action we will take… EC has all the means,” the functionary said without elaborating. Former chief election commissioner V S Sampath said if the violation is by one party or one candidate, action can be taken. “But if it is a universal violation, you cannot postpone elections. When you are ordering elections under such circumstances, you should anticipate this kind of a fallout also,” he told PTI. At the same time, Sampath said, it does not mean the EC should take things lying down because it is a matter of public health.
“There is no way you can implement this 100 per cent, but they (EC) will have to do their best. They have to maintain a delicate balance, which they are perhaps doing,” Sampath, who was CEC between 2012 and 2015, said. Assembly polls in Bihar will be held in three phases on October 28, November 3 and November 7. Most of the assembly by-elections will be held on November 3. Bypolls to the Valmiki Nagar Lok Sabha seat in Bihar and some assembly seats in Manipur will take place on November 7.
Another former CEC, who did not wish to be named, said as part of “demonstrative action”, the poll panel can build up a case by taking note of violations on a daily basis to countermand polls in one or two constituencies. “Instead of October 28, polls can take place on November 3. But it will send a message that violations are not taken kindly,” he said. Former CEC O P Rawat said those violating the norms could be punished under the provisions of the Disaster Management Act for either one year or two years of imprisonment.
“But the issue is if thousands of people are violating, how much action can you take. Implementation problems are there,” Rawat, who headed the EC between January and December 2018, said. SY Quraishi, who is also a former chief election commissioner, said the EC’s recent guidelines, based on experiences of various countries, are “very good”. “It was a question of enforcement. I am happy that the EC is now coming down heavily on this (violations).” He said the Commission can enforce all guidelines. “And if there is a violation, the EC can ban those rallies so long as rules are applicable to all parties across the board… (there is) a level playing field,” he said.