ccording to Care Ratings chief economist Madan Sabnavis, West Bengal’s increase in cases over April put its share in the overall cases of country 2.4 ppts higher than it was in March—and Uttar Pradesh’s, where panchayat elections concluded late last month, rose a whopping 7.9 ppts.
In these times of deep political polarisation of the electorate, constitutional and democratic institutions and the painstakingly inculcated public trust in these need to be protected. The Election Commission of India is one such institution. So, no matter how partisan it has been perceived to be and how absurdly it seems to have executed its mandate amid the Covid-19 surge in the country—it cancelled campaign rallies for state elections only on April 22, though the Trinamool Congress and the Congress had urged it to end campaigning or at least reschedule the remaining phases of the poll—the caustic oral observations of the Madras High Court could have been avoided, mindful of effect on the institution’s image. Lamenting why election officials shouldn’t be charged as ‘murderers’ in view of the Covid situation besmirches not just individual officers, but also the institution. However, the ECI struck an even more damaging blow to its own image by asking for a gag order on the media. First, it approached the Madras HC for directions to the media to confine its reporting to the recorded observations of the court and not oral observations. Next, it moved the Supreme Court after the HC didn’t entertain its plea. Asking for muzzling of a voice critical for democratic debate was unbecoming of an institution tasked with regulating elections.
In fact, the context in which the Madras HC made the observations show the ECI quite poorly. According to Care Ratings chief economist Madan Sabnavis, West Bengal’s increase in cases over April put its share in the overall cases of country 2.4 ppts higher than it was in March—and Uttar Pradesh’s, where panchayat elections concluded late last month, rose a whopping 7.9 ppts. Not only did the EC resist calls to shorten the duration of the polls by clubbing the last phases, but also hardly acted to enforce Covid-protocol at campaign rallies. It only banned these after the prime minister cancelled his rallies in West Bengal, following sharp criticism of rallies breaching Covid-appropriate behaviour.
The lack of unanimity within the commission over asking for restrictions on the media offers the EC a face-saver; it seems to have at least weighed the effect of its litigatory action before going forward. It has now said it “was unanimous that before Hon’ble Supreme Court, there should not be any prayer for restriction on media reporting.” Whether this recantation sails or not, it must keep in mind that trust in institutions must be actively sustained; its top officials can’t always expect legacy to come to its aid.