The MHC expressed utter disappointment at the EC’s failure to prevent the rampant disregard of distancing protocols that were witnessed in political rallies carried out across Tamil Nadu. The MHC, which was hearing a petition about the COVID-control measures put in place in the Karur constituency during the vote-counting process, did not mince words when it said that the EC should face murder charges for its ham-handed approach to violators. It also threatened the EC with stalling the vote-counting process in TN in the event of it failing to enforce guidelines.
The backlash from the MHC is being viewed by observers in the policy space as an example of too little, too late, despite numerous PILs filed earlier by the public, questioning the need for conducting elections at a time of a health crisis. Between February 26, when the polls were announced in Tamil Nadu, to April 6, the actual day of polling, violations of COVID norms were being reported dime a dozen at jam-packed election rallies involving the heads of the ruling party, as well as the Opposition and newer parties in the fray.
The situation was no different in other poll-bound states, like West Bengal, where a multi-phase election was planned, despite the threat of the coronavirus lingering. It was only as recently as April 9, that the EC warned political parties that it would not hesitate to ban public meetings of star campaigners if the attendees were caught violating COVID protocols. However, since that order fell on deaf ears, the authorities were compelled to ban rallies between 7 pm and 10 am in West Bengal. Finally, last week, after India reported over a lakh new cases every day, the Election Commission pulled the plug on roadshows and bike rallies in West Bengal.
To be fair, the Election Commission has reported that it had invoked its plenary powers under Article 324, to instruct polling officials to initiate actions against violators under the Disaster Management Act and IPC. According to experts, holding the EC responsible for the spike in COVID cases might be overkill as enforcement falls under the ambit of the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA).
As far as the EC was concerned, its Constitutional mandate made it necessary to complete polling before the expiry of a state assembly’s term. If at all polling had been delayed, President’s rule would have been applied to the respective states, which would have become yet another headache for the EC. On Tuesday, the EC had banned victory rallies on or after the counting of votes in five states and a Union Territory on May 2. The Madras High Court also recommended a lockdown in Tamil Nadu on May 1 ahead of the counting of votes, to prevent any untoward incident.
These measures might appear like lip service, in the aftermath of the damage dealt by COVID-19. Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee summed it up succinctly when he said, “..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..”