Elections in pandemic times Why our political parties need to switch to digital canvassing First Post 07 Jan 2022 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar



Elections in pandemic times: Why our political parties need to switch to digital canvassing First Post 07 Jan 2022

Addressing the media after his visit to Lucknow, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), Sushil Chandra, stated, ‘all parties told us elections should be held on time following COVID-19 protocols.’ He further added that guidelines on managing large election rallies or if digital communication would need to be increased would be issued after the election schedule was announced. It appears no effort was made to convince political parties to think rationally and postpone polls in view of the emerging third wave.

The Allahabad High Court simultaneously appealed to the PM and the Election Commission of India (ECI) to immediately ban rallies and public meetings as also consider postponing elections. The CEC stated that it would consider the High Court appeal, however, would act on protocols to be adopted once elections were announced. This may be too little, too late.

The question which arises is why views of only political parties are being taken. Political parties competing in elections, DO NOT represent masses. They are participants in the electoral process. High Courts views or the common man’s health security should carry greater weight in the ECI decision-making process. It is the common man who is most affected by the spreading COVID virus.   

The ECI does not appear to have learnt its lessons from its elections, conducted last year, with a rampaging Delta Variant. The Madras High Court in a judgement chastised it by stating, ‘Your institution is singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19. Election Commission officers should be booked on murder charges.’ The Chief Justice of the Madras High Court stated, ‘Public health is of paramount importance, and it is distressing that constitutional authorities have to be reminded in such regard. It is only when a citizen survives that he’ll be able to enjoy the rights that a democratic republic guarantees.’ It is repeating the same mistake.

In 2021, the ECI only issued a warning about holding large rallies, but even these were ignored. Most rallies had no social distancing and no masks. As per a BBC report, cases in West Bengal began to spike in the second week of March as rallies increased. Other states witnessed increases in the latter part of March. The cancelling of rallies at the last minute, not by the ECI, but political parties themselves, meant nothing. The damage had been done and India paid a heavy price. Thousands of lives were lost solely because the ECI permitted political parties to continue with their rallies and road shows.   

Unless banned, rallies and road shows are ongoing and will continue being held with large numbers being compelled to attend either by political affiliations, lure of money or pressure from local political representatives. Most rallies would be in rural areas or small towns where health care facilities are dismal. Currently, COVID numbers are galloping by the day. The third wave is on us and yet politicians desire to play election games exposing the public, solely for votes. 

Does it require rocket science for the ECI to comprehend that taking one-sided views of political parties is incorrect as they consider their personal interest and not that of the common public. Further, in case COVID increases, majority contacting would be the common citizen. The politician could still obtain the best medical treatment, while the common man would be left to fend for himself. That was the state last year with the Delta wave and will be repeated in 2022.

There are divergent views on whether the ECI has the power to postpone elections. A constitutional legal luminary stated that elections can be postponed only on grounds of emergency and for which the government, ECI and political parties must be in sync. The question is whether COVID is an emergency and in what manner are political entities a party to the decision. There is no doubt that preserving lives should be of greater national concern than conducting elections.

Another view is that the ECI has the power to postpone elections, but it must do so based on scientific data proving that rallies are responsible for the spread. This becomes difficult as states not involved in elections in 2021, also had high cases, hence blaming rallies alone may not be legally correct. This contradicts government decisions currently being announced.

If gatherings are not responsible for the spread, then why have states imposed section 144, restricted numbers attending marriages as also imposing curfews at night. Delhi has even placed restrictions on opening of markets. Are we being hypocrites or applying warped logic to permit holding of rallies and roadshows.  

 The Economic Times quoting global data states that between Feb 2020 and Nov 2021, 124 countries held national or sub-national elections. Of them, 57 countries held elections which were initially postponed. Currently, most western nations are grappling a severe COVID wave, hence we need not ape others. We need to consider our own culture on adoption of COVID protocols as also weak healthcare systems.

COVID protocols can be strictly imposed during voting and counting phases but not in rallies and road shows where mass participation is indication of popularity. If elections are still to be held, then as a first step, public rallies must be banned, digital canvassing and advertisements can be resorted to. Government media channels can allocate space to all political parties.

As per data published by Statista in Sept 2021, India already had 748 Million smartphone users in 2020, implying an average of at least one per household. If even with this if we cannot progress to digital canvassing, then we possess fixed mindsets.  

If the nation, pushed by COVID, switched to online working in a short time, then in similar circumstances, it can move to digital canvassing. Unless it does so, the oncoming wave would impact national economy and enhance unemployment. For changing our canvassing methodology we need bold and mature politicians. The question is whether our current breed of politicians have interest of the nation close to their hearts or solely a lust for political power. It is time for leading political parties to take the leap and announce virtual campaigning, pushing others to follow.