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Sunday, April 11, 2021

How India’s holding polls amid Covid-19: Here’s all you need to know

Holding the first set of elections in India amid Covid-19 is not an easy task for the Election Commission of India (EC). With the Bihar Assembly polls are nearing, the EC is finalizing guidelines to hold the polls with lots of restrictions.

Among the major restrictions, reduced public presence at campaigns, door-to-door outreach, strict surveillance inside polling booths and counting halls and strict social distancing are a must, says a report. In this article, we shall discuss what it takes to hold a full-fledged Assembly election amid a pandemic in India.

Here’s all you need to know about the upcoming Bihar polls in 7 points.

1. What have EC suggested so far

The EC has set the contours for the upcoming elections in the “new normal” set up. The political parties have no choice but to follow them. The parties have so far offered various suggestions to the constitutional body. Some of these are, deferring elections altogether to holding them in a single phase, from reverting to ballot papers to allowing physical (and not just virtual) campaigns, and from raising the limits on poll expenditure by candidates to exempting those expenses incurred while maintaining pandemic precautions. Election officials of Bihar too have conveyed their inputs to EC.

2. What is EC up to?

EC has reviewed all the suggestions received from political parties about conducting the Bihar elections. The Bihar Assembly has 243 members. Its term ends in November. After reviewing all these suggestions, the EC is likely to issue its own guidelines in the next three days. Elections to the Samastipur parliamentary constituency and 56 Assembly constituencies in eight states, including Haryana, Jharkhand and Manipur, will be held from September, a report says. An EC official told HT: “The guidelines will broadly centre around three primary subjects — polling stations, counting halls and public meetings. For example, in the counting hall we used to have 14 tables, now we have slashed the number to seven.” Experts believe that the election model adopted for Bihar will have a major for political importance as it will be held amid a pandemic.

3. Reduced physical rallies

Holding public rallies is a key political tool for parties for mobilising voters and communicating messages by its leaders. It is almost impossible to hold rallies in a traditional way amid the pandemic. With the push towards digital campaigning, parties have expressed concern that the direct face-to-face connection with voters, especially those who lack digital access, will get affected in the absence of physical rallies. The BJP has already asked the EC to allow physical campaigns in rural belts where voters do not have access to the internet.

The party has told the EC that all party workers, campaigners and leaders will have the Aarogya Setu app downloaded on their phones and maintain social distancing during roadshows and processions. For physical rallies to be allowed, the BJP has suggested setting up of enclosures with limited seats, separate exit and entry points, use of sanitisers and thermal scanners at all campaigns. Other parties such as the RJD, CPM and LJP too have opted for physical rallies, stating that virtual rallies are cost more money and demand enhanced infrastructure.

An ECI official told HT, public meetings may be allowed but strictly monitored. “If a ground has been designated for a public meeting, then the administration will have to ensure that only the number of people who can be admitted keeping social distancing in mind are permitted inside. Circles to mark the appropriate distance should be drawn. The number of riders that can accompany the leader will also be limited.”

4. Door-to-door campaign to build connection

The Congress, on the other hand, has sought permission for house-to-house campaigns from EC. According to the EC guidelines, all those doing door-to-door campaigning must share their phone numbers so that if anyone tests Covid-19 positive, quick contact tracing can be done. The commission is also considering allowing online submission of nomination by candidates.

5. Parties seek increased poll expenses

Budget is another area of concern for the parties. The BJP has suggested that the expenditure limit should be increased for the candidates. The party has said that purchasing equipment to safeguard against Covid-19 should be exempted from being charged to the candidates’ accounts. Several parties have spoken about similar concerns and suggested budget raise citing an increase in expenditure wing to reliance on social media and digital medium propaganda due to the pandemic.

However, as of now, the EC is not considering increasing the financial limits of the political parties. The poll panel has said social media campaigning was allowed even before the pandemic. Therefore, expenditure limits that exist will apply. As per the existing norms, a candidate is allowed to spend a maximum of Rs 28 lakh, including all election costs. The EC has already issued directions that the number of electors per polling booth will be limited to a maximum 1,000 compared with 1,600 earlier. A number of auxillary polling stations will be set up to house the voters. Around 36,000 polling stations will be created in Bihar.

6. Several other suggestions by the parties

1) The Congress, the RJD and All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen have also suggested that the EC should revert to using the ballot paper so that voters don’t get Covid-19 infected while pressing the EVM buttons.

2) The BJP has also asked for changes to the model code of conduct to launch new methods of campaigning in an election.

3) Some parties have also suggested that bypolls in some states should be postponed even further owing to rains, floods and of course the pandemic.

7. What India can learn from other countries’ poll

Conducting elections amid a global pandemic is not easy. In times when people’s basic rights such as freedom of movement are restricted, it is important for the authorities to make special arrangements to ensure everyone gets an opportunity to exercise their right to vote and also avoid health risks.

Over 70 national elections scheduled for the rest of the year. Some elections ahve already taken place during Covid-19 and India can use their examples.

A) Facebook lives, Zoom addresses and online campaigning took place of public gatherings. The candidates contesting in Singapore had to adhere to special protocols. Rallies were banned, strict social distancing rules had to be followed. “Fist bumping” and  “shaking hands” were discouraged as well. Despite lockdown and movement restrictions before the election, people eventually had to come out of their homes to cast their votes on the election day, therefore authorities diversified methods to vote and included special “hygiene protocols” in Singapore.

B) Authorities introduced compulsory face coverings for voters and 2-metre distance while waiting in lines to vote. Hand sanitizers and disposable gloves were placed near ballot boxes. In South Korea, over 5 lakh officials were engaged to disinfect over 14,000 polling stations.

C) In Serbia, all polling stations were equipped with face masks and hand sanitisers. Poland asked voters to bring their own pens and kept the doors of polling stations open. The polling booths aired once every hour.

D) North Macedonia kept the polling stations open till late evening to ensure greater turnout.

E) Special arrangements were made for the elderly in all these countries. In South Korea, any voter who had a high temperature was taken to a separate booth. Covid-19-positive were given the option of mailing their ballots.

F) South Koreans allowed voting through posts, but most people choose to visit the polling booths. Poland chose to conduct polls through postal voting, becoming the first country in the world to do so.

India can learn from these nations before conducting its elections amid the pandemic, especially in Bihar that has over 1 lakh Covid-19 cases.

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