Patna: Ahead of the Bihar assembly polls scheduled in October-November, the Election Commission of India (ECI) Friday issued guidelines for holding of elections amid the Covid-19 pandemic, causing outrage among state MLAs who are peeved with some of the instructions.
The poll watchdog has said that only five people can campaign door-to-door and restricted a candidate’s convoy for roadshows to five vehicles, among other measures. Voters will be provided with gloves to press the EVM button and Covid-19 patients in quarantine will be allowed to vote at the last hour of the polling day, according to the guidelines.
Both ruling and opposition MLAs have expressed reservations over some of the guidelines, saying enforcing the norms would be difficult during campaigning.
RJD MLA Virendra Yadav called it a “joke” on democracy.
“During the lockdown, the government has been imposing fines and handing out punishments to enforce social distancing and wearing of masks, but still a large population defied the orders. Now the EC is asking us to enforce them. When I hold a meeting I am supposed to ask my supporters to maintain social distancing and not allow any person without masks. Is it possible?” he said.
“During campaigning, I ask for votes. I am not supposed to educate the voters on Covid. It was the job of the government to do it,” he added.
RJD MLA Samir Mahaseth, meanwhile, brought out the issue of model code of conduct.
“During polls, the sword of violation of code of conduct hangs on the candidate. There are several cases lodged against candidates, but they only get to know about it after the court issues a notice. (Besides the EC guidelines), this is another sword hanging over our heads,” said RJD MLA Samir Mahaseth, pointing out that the guidelines mentioned non-compliance would invite proceedings under Disaster Management Act, 2005, and under Section 188 of IPC.
‘Will create problems in door-to door campaigns’
BJP MLA Gyanndra Singh Gyanu said the guidelines would pose a problem during door-to-door campaigning.
“The EC has tried its best to hold a safe election. But it does create problems in door-to door campaigns as the EC says not more than five people, including the candidate, (are allowed). Suppose I go for a door-to-door campaign and several of my supporters start following me. How can I stop them? As it is, wearing masks and maintaining social distance are alien to people living in rural areas,” he added.
JD(U) MLA Lalan Paswan echoed Gyanu and said that several of the guidelines were difficult to follow.
“On Thursday, I was holding a roadshow in my constituency. My vehicle was followed by more than 20 cars of my followers. I did not know that they were following my roadshow. Now the EC mandates that there will be not more than five cars in a roadshow,” he said.
Congress spokesperson Harku Jha said: “We will abide by the guidelines, but it almost amounts to throttling democracy.”
Physical rallies almost impossible
During consultations between the EC and various political parties in the last few months, there was a clear division between the ruling parties and the opposition over holding of virtual rallies.
While the NDA supported holding of e-rallies to safeguard participants from Covid, the opposition was adamant on its demand for permission to hold traditional rallies.
The EC has granted permission to hold physical rallies, but with stringent restrictions.
The commission has stated that District Returning officers should be informed in advance about a rally so that marks can be drawn in dedicated grounds for the attendees to stand.
A nodal medical officer will be involved to see if the Covid-19 guidelines are being adhered to. The respective district authorities will have to ensure that the number of people attending the rally doesn’t exceed the number prescribed by the state disaster management authority.
“The EC has virtually ensured that real rallies are not held during the campaigning. It will involve so much manpower and more permits. It is going to hit our party the most because our voters belong to the downtrodden sections,” said RJD MLA Alok Kumar Mehta, a confidant of Leader of Opposition Tejashwi Yadav.
Mehta also said the EC guidelines will “discourage” people to vote. This is because the guidelines stated that if a voter, on the day of voting, showed symptoms, the person will be provided a token and asked to come back at the last hour of polling.
“It will be a viral season (when the election happens) and many voters will have temperature even without having Covid-19. Many of them may not even return to vote. It is virtually discouraging voting,” said Mehta.
Before issuing the guidelines, the EC had asked the political parties twice for suggestions on steps to be taken to hold the elections.
Most parties, including NDA ally LJP, were in favour of delaying the polls in the wake of the pandemic.
However, by issuing the guidelines, the EC has removed any doubts over the timely conduct of the assembly polls. It is, however, yet to formally announce the dates of the polls.