New Delhi: Political parties have escalated their campaign in West Bengal days after the Election Commission (EC) shot off a letter to state and national political parties asking them to follow social distancing norms and Covid-19 guidelines while holding rallies amid the pandemic.
On Monday, the BJP lined up three political rallies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while Home Minister Amit Shah addressed two rallies and led two roadshows.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, meanwhile, addressed four rallies. And the Congress too is finally scheduling rallies of party leader Rahul Gandhi, beginning 14 April.
On Friday, the EC had warned political parties of strict action, including banning rallies and meetings, if Covid-19 norms are not followed. The commission, in its letter, pointed out specific instances of candidates, star campaigners and other leaders who did not wear masks and flouted norms.
Amid a surging second wave, India reported its highest daily tally of fresh cases at around 1.70 lakh Monday.
ThePrint reached the EC for a comment via text but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
‘Shows how serious we are’
Ahead of the phase five of the West Bengal assembly elections, Modi held rallies in Bardhaman, Kalyani and Barasat.
“This is the first time the prime minister will be holding three rallies in a single day in West Bengal during this election season. This shows how serious we are about the elections and shows our commitment too. Three rallies by the PM and four (rallies and roadshows) by the union home minister in a single day will give our campaign a big push,” said a senior BJP functionary who didn’t wish to be named.
Asked how social distancing norms are being flouted, the functionary said it is impossible to follow Covid protocols during political rallies that are attended by thousands of people.
“It is not that we are the only ones holding rallies, see how other political parties are flouting norms. We are still trying to have chairs in place at an appropriate distance but it becomes difficult to manage,” he added.
Rahul Sinha, senior party leader and former BJP president of West Bengal said, “Whatever we are able to do we are following, as far as Covid protocols are concerned. At the same time we are also spreading awareness about Covid norms. Right from the stage from where our leaders address, we are taking all precautions.”
He said, “But at the same time, the place where the audience sits if we try to follow too many norms it will lead to more violations as there would be jostling as people want to catch a glimpse of PM Modi.”
Sinha added that the party can’t stop people from coming to rallies. “Both the TMC and Congress are making an excuse of Covid to ensure these rallies are cancelled as they are not even getting 10 per cent of the crowd our rallies are witnessing. They are trying to stop our ‘Jan Jagran’ (awareness campaign). The verdict is clear — BJP is forming the government.”
‘I can’t be worrying about norms’
Asked about the situation, senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP Pradip Bhattacharya said, “I would request you to speak to Home Minister Amit Shah, PM Modi and CM Mamata Banerjee. Can you show me one picture of Union home minister and chief minister Mamata Banerjee wearing a mask? They are the ones who are supposed to ensure norms are followed in the state and they are the ones flouting it.”
He also said the party has been asking its candidates to create greater awareness about use of masks and sanitisers during roadshows and rallies, but it is proving to be a “Herculean” task.
A number of opposition parties also questioned the eight-phase elections in the state.
The EC should have thought before allowing elections to take place during a pandemic and that too in eight phases, a senior Congress leader told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
“Our goal is to win and ensure we get maximum seats. These last few phases are quite crucial for us and if I have to reach out to my voters I can’t be worrying about ensuring all norms are followed,” he said.
Worsening Covid situation
Between 26 February, when elections were announced, and 30 March, the country saw a 224 per cent rise in daily positives while the test positivity rate increased from 2.13 per cent to 5.22 per cent, ThePrint had reported.
Daily positives in West Bengal rose by 190 per cent — from 216 to 628 — since the announcement even as live coverage of election rallies of all parties show how lax adherence is to Covid-appropriate behaviour. The test positivity rate in the state tripled during this time — from 1.07 to 3.5.
“It is a big state and so many rallies are taking place so it is not possible to monitor all. But we are creating awareness on following Covid-19 norms and our candidates are following it,” said senior TMC leader and Lok Sabha MP Sougata Roy.