7 leaders dead: Angry MP political families ask if postponing polls would’ve ‘shaken democracy’

7 leaders dead: Angry MP political families ask if postponing polls would’ve ‘shaken democracy’

Top BJP and Congress politicians campaigned in Damoh for 17 April bypoll, even as Covid cases surged. Seven leaders died, while others lost family members.

Sonakshi holding a photograph of her late father, BJP leader Devnarayan Shrivastava, in Damoh, MP. Devnarayan contracted Covid during a bypoll campaign in April and died | Photo: Nirmal Poddar | ThePrint

Sonakshi holding a photograph of her late father, BJP leader Devnarayan Shrivastava, in Damoh, MP. Devnarayan contracted Covid during a bypoll campaign in April and died | Photo: Nirmal Poddar | ThePrint

Damoh: When Madhya Pradesh recorded 4,882 new Covid-19 cases on 9 April, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was holding a massive election rally in Damoh district. Just the day before, Chouhan’s government had announced a weekend lockdown in the entire state, except for Damoh, which was slated for an assembly bypoll on 17 April.

MP’s biggest political names — Chouhan, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Uma Bharti on the BJP side and Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh on the Congress side — went to Damoh to address huge rallies in the run-up to the bypoll.

On 16 April, former CM Singh tested positive upon his return to Delhi from Damoh.

Soon, more politicians on both sides of the poll battle were found to have contracted the coronavirus, and seven of them died in the next few days.

BJP members who lost their lives included former Damoh district chief Devnarayan Shrivastava, ward councillor Mahendra Rai, Yuva Morcha leader Sandeep Panthi and Bina Nagar party chief Amrita Khatik. On the Congress side, former state commerce minister and Damoh bypoll in-charge Brajendra Singh Rathore, women’s wing state president Mandvi Chouhan and local leader Gokul Patel succumbed to the virus they contracted during campaigning.

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EC posters said don’t fear coronavirus

The Damoh bypoll was necessitated when sitting Congress MLA Rahul Lodhi quit the party and joined the BJP in October 2020. Ahead of the bypoll, the Election Commission put up posters and banners, actively encouraging people to come out and vote and “not be scared” of the coronavirus. “Corona se nahin darenge, matdaan hum zaroor karenge,” one poster read.

An Election Commission hoarding encouraging people to ‘not be afraid’ of the coronavirus and encouraging them to vote | By special arrangement

On 1 April, just before campaigning for the bypoll began, the number of Covid-19 cases reported in the district was 11. On 6 April, the number had climbed to 28, and 10 days after that, on 16 April, the day before polling, the count was 377 new cases — the biggest single-day jump at that point.

Six days after polling, on 23 April, 165 cases were registered, taking the total active case count to 1,060.

Damoh residents said they were surprised at the frequency of visits by top Madhya Pradesh leaders. “We used to joke that given the number of trips Shivraj Singh Chouhan is making from Bhopal to Damoh, if someone wants something delivered from Bhopal, they should just ask him,” said Ashish Mishra, a shopkeeper. “If the West Bengal polls weren’t on at that time, I am sure PM Modi or Amit Shah may also have come to Damoh,” he added.

The MP High Court banned victory processions in Damoh just before the results were announced on 2 May. But it was too late by then. Since the bypoll, Damoh has been recording around 150-160 Covid-19 cases every day.

‘No one came to help’

BJP leader Devnarayan Shrivastava began exhibiting Covid symptoms a few days after the bypoll on 17 April, and died on 27 April. His 26-year-old daughter Sonakshi told ThePrint that the family had tried to stop him from campaigning, but “he was too devoted to the party”.

“We repeatedly tried to stop him from going. Covid cases were surging, but he kept getting calls from party people asking him to join them in the campaign. In fact, even on the day of the polls, he was sent to sit at a polling booth to get a sense of things… He was just too devoted to the party and the polls to say no,” she said.

But despite this devotion to the party, “no one came to help” when Shrivastava fell sick, Sonakshi alleged.

“Later, we tried to contact so many people. But besides Jayant Malaiya (a senior BJP leader and former MLA from Damoh), no one else from the party helped. Everyone wrote condolences messages for him on Twitter… but when we needed actual help, no one helped,” she added.

Within six months, Sonakshi, an only child, has lost both her parents to Covid-19. And she blames her father’s death, at least, on the Damoh bypoll.

Aisa toh nahin ki yeh bypoll nahin hota toh poori democracy hil jaatiyeh aasaani se baad mein ho sakta tha (It’s not as if our democracy would have been in peril if this bypoll didn’t take place… this could easily have been delayed),” she said.

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‘Timing of bypoll grossly inappropriate’

For the record, Congress candidate Ajay Tandon won the Damoh bypoll comfortably. But one of the leaders who actively campaigned for him, Lal Chand Rai, is overcome with regret.

Lal Chand tested positive a few days after the polls, and soon, his wife Vandana and their 17-year-old son were also found to be infected. While Lal Chand and his son recovered, Vandana died.

“Several families in Damoh have been ruined due to the election campaigning. My own wife, my life-partner, died because of this… I am very devastated,” the Congress leader told ThePrint, adding that holding a by-election while Covid was surging “was grossly inappropriate”.

Congress leader Lal Chand Rai with his wife Vandana at their wedding anniversary in January; (right) Rai and his son stand in front of a photograph of Vandana after she died of Covid-19 | Photos: Special arrangement/Nirmal Poddar | ThePrint

Sachin Rai, the 17-year-old son of late BJP councillor Mahendra Rai, also questioned why the bypoll wasn’t delayed, and why no lockdown was imposed in Damoh.

“What is so special about Damoh that there was a lockdown in all districts, but not here?” Sachin asked. “Is a by-election more important than people’s lives?”

(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)

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