Elections are critical and central to Indian democracy. They should be postponed only in exceptional circumstances, such as when there is immense risk to life and limb. For instance, elections have been postponed in the past in Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab due to militancy.
The coronavirus crisis is a similar situation, if not much worse. This is a pandemic that spreads when people mingle and even from contaminated surfaces. Holding an election will increase the spread of the virus and, it must be said, cost lives.
Like many countries, India has opened up its economy with some restrictions because a permanent lockdown will starve people to death. But when it comes to elections, would the heavens fall if the polls in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh were postponed by six months? From Sri Lanka to the United States, several elections across the world have been deferred or rescheduled due to the pandemic.
At the very least, this issue needs a debate. Strangely, there is none. Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora has declared he has “no plans” to defer the elections in Bihar.
The term of the current Bihar assembly expires on 29 November 2020. Dates would have to be announced sometime in October. It would have been more reasonable for CEC Arora to say he would take a call by September, depending on how bad the situation in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh is.
There are three issues involved here: one, an election itself becoming a potential virus spreader; two, the difficulty of organising voting amid restrictions; and 3, Covid restrictions coming in the way of free and fair election campaigning.
Polling could be the next ‘single source’
One hopes the people of Bihar escape the worst of Covid-19, and that they don’t have to go through what Maharashtra and Delhi are. But note that the virus has spread to all 38 districts of Bihar, and cases have grown significantly since the return of migrant labourers. The possibility of a repeat of last year’s devastating floods in Patna could make things worse.
What makes Bihar particularly vulnerable is the state’s absent health infrastructure: it ranks 20 out of 21 large states in the NITI Aayog’s ranking. Only Uttar Pradesh is worse. As inter-state travel restrictions have been lifted, Bihar has decided it will no longer test and quarantine returning labourers.
In Madhya Pradesh, we have already seen how government change resulted in Covid going out of hand in Indore. The face of this change, Jyotiraditya Scindia, is himself down with Covid, as is an MLA of the MP assembly. The expectation of imminent by-polls is resulting in politicians risking their lives, and those of others, going about political events with no regard for social distancing.
When people are flouting social distancing even before election dates have been announced, imagine what would happen when they are. Does the Election Commission really want to take the blame of exacerbating India’s Covid crisis?
The first country to hold elections despite Covid was South Korea. If Bihar and Madhya Pradesh can defeat the virus with the rigour that South Korea did, they might have a case for holding elections on time. But right now, we need thousands of Covid testing centres before we can think of how many thousand polling booths we need for a ‘socially distant’ election.
Given these circumstances, holding elections seems to be a bad idea. CEC Arora says that the whole process of polling is being re-imagined. For instance, the Election Commission (EC) might increase the number of booths to enable social distancing, and allow postal ballots for those above 60 years of age, and so on. He suggests the EC could cap the number of voters at every booth at 800 (from the current 1,400).
These measures could completely re-imagine how polling is done in India, giving rise to a whole new set of controversies. And it may still result in spreading the virus. Bihar is a densely populated state and even 800 voters per booth will mean a lot of people mingling and unknowingly passing on the virus.
When an election is announced, the bureaucracy gets entirely focused on organising it. We are dealing with a once-in-a-century pandemic that needs the full focus of the bureaucracy and state machinery. Would it be fair, for instance, to expose police and central paramilitary forces to crowds who might gather? Do we not have enough of a Covid problem that we want to exacerbate it? And for what? Just to avoid six months of President’s rule in two states?
The EC says it will organise elections in such a way that it won’t violate any rules made by the National Disaster Management Authority. Who is the head of the National Executive Committee of the NDMA? The Union Home Secretary. This will bring the EC’s Model Code of Conduct in conflict with the NDMA and raise issues of fairness and equal opportunity.
An unfair campaign
With political gatherings and rallies banned, there will be an extra effort on online campaigning. The EC also wants to use the digital medium in a big way to reach out to voters. Using technology is a good idea, but when offline modes of campaigning are unavailable, the process becomes unfair to those who don’t have access to internet.
Internet reach in Bihar was 28 per cent and in Madhya Pradesh, 30 per cent, as of 2019. And a disproportionately large number of these users are men. In the interest of fairness, how about postponing the election by just six months? By March next year, we should be in a much better situation with Covid, if not completely out of it. It is a travesty of democracy if an election is held without voters getting a chance to hear what different candidates and parties have to say.
The BJP can afford to put up thousands of TV screens across these states. It does not have to spend on high internet speeds or satellites to broadcast its speeches. TV news channels broadcast the speeches, and all that the BJP is doing is adding a local cable connection. Will these channels also broadcast long speeches by leaders of other parties?
Even without those screens being hung on trees, private news channels have become propaganda mouthpieces of the ruling party. So, we might have an election where voters are aware of the electoral pitch of only one side, the BJP and its allies.
If even village gatherings are not allowed under the NDMA Act, we have to think about how those parties who don’t have the resources of the BJP, will campaign. If fairness in elections still matters to us.
The real reason
The Election Commission’s eagerness to hold these elections on time seems to be running in parallel to the BJP’s eagerness to have them too.
As things stand, the BJP is likely to win both in Madhya Pradesh and with its allies, in Bihar. Home Minister Amit Shah has already started doing what he does best: campaign. As India climbs the global rankings of countries worst affected by the coronavirus, elections seem to be the BJP’s need of the hour.
The real reason why the BJP needs these two elections on time is that it knows it is going to win them, given that both states have a listless opposition. And it needs these election victories to be able to suggest that there is no public disapproval of its handling of Covid, the labour crisis or the economic recession.
Both elections should produce the same results if they are held six months later. But the BJP is in a hurry, it needs a stamp of legitimacy as India climbs up the ranks in the Covid hall of shame.
The Election Commission should not indulge the BJP’s political compulsions. If there’s one thing more important than holding elections on time, it is saving people’s lives.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.