By Abdul Bari Masoud
New Delhi: As the Bihar assembly elections are round the corner, opposition parties on Friday urged the Election Commission of India not to give undue advantage to the ruling party (BJP) in the times of coronavirus pandemic. They said the Commission’s Guidelines for the “Conduct of General Elections/Bye-Elections During Covid-19” falls far short for the conduct of “free, fair and independent elections. They also raised doubts over the use of EVMs for elections.
Even former Chief Election Commissioner, S Y Quraishi also said the ECI should ensure a level playing field in a mostly virtual campaign during the forthcoming Bihar election.
Sharply reacting to the Commission’s Guidelines, the main opposition Congress party said these clearly fail the principal tests of free and fair conduct of elections thereby negating the constitutional obligation of “superintendence and control of elections” in a non-partisan and unbiased manner.
Party general secretary and MP, K.C. Venugopal said it is the constitutional duty of the ECI in ensuring the smooth conduct of elections in “free, non-partisan and fair fashion” without giving undue advantage to the ruling party.
He said ECI sought comments and suggestions from political parties but it ignored almost all suggestions
“Despite having sought comments from political parties such as the Indian National Congress and in response to which detailed recommendations were given, the ECI has overlooked almost all the suggestions given and prepared guidelines that are inadequate in dealing with the challenge of Covid-19.”
Congress leader said the party has suggested that use of EVM’s be avoided especially given the extremely high chances of infection.
“The INC, after careful consultation, had requested that the use of EVM’s be avoided, especially given the extremely high chances of infection for a very large part of the population from shared use of one machine. This concern is easily avoided with the use of paper ballots.”
He said the ECI has completely failed to address this concern, instead opting to passively state that EVMs and VVPATs will be sanitized.
No distinction was made between rural and urban areas in the guidelines and it was left to the discretion of State officials instead, he added.
According to guidelines, the relevant provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and the Indian Penal Code will be invoked against anyone who violates the said guidelines.
However, the ECI has surprisingly missed the potential for abuse by the ruling Party which controls the policing machinery, he said.
For example, where members of a crowd in a political gathering violate the rules despite the efforts of the organizers, how does the ECI ensure that the candidate (and their supporters) will be indemnified from unjust penalty or harassment?
He further pointed out that there is no safeguard in Quarantine Powers and as a result, any “inconvenient” campaigner, candidate or supporters can be quarantined without explanation by the state government.
Echoing similar concerns about the upcoming Bihar election, CPI (M) said it is ECI’s responsibility for ensuring fair play and it becomes all the more necessary that ECI is not only fair, but also explicitly appears to be so.
In a letter sent to the Chief Election Commissioner, Sunil Arora by CPI (M) General Secretary, Sitaram Yechury, the communist party said the ECI should reconsider the proposal of digital election campaign and the election funding.
Yechury, said the Bihar CEO’s proposal that the entire election should be held on a virtual platform because of the raging pandemic was opposed by most political parties, not only because of the issue of a huge access deficit , but massive financial resources that would have to be deployed to connect with the voters.
He asked the ECI to consider the following developments.
“On the eve of the 2019 general election, the then BJP President, Amit Shah had publicly stated that the Party can, with its network of 32 lakh WhatsApp groups, can make any message, true or false, viral within hours. Add to this, the finding of International fact check websites that an overwhelming majority of fake news is generated in India. And now on the eve of the Bihar elections, the Party has kicked off a virtual election campaign by putting up 72,000 LED TV monitors for Shah’s speech. After holding 60 virtual rallies, the BJP has claimed that its election campaign efforts would involve 9500 IT Cell heads who will coordinate 72,000 WhatsApp groups, one for each polling booth, of which 50,000 have been formed in the last two months.”
He also raised the issue related to the social media campaign of the ECI.
It has now come to light that an advertising and social media company owned by a BJP office bearer was hired by the CEO of Maharashtra, to issue election-related online ads during the 2019 assembly polls. Subsequently, it has been further revealed that the Election Commission of India itself authorized government bodies to appoint the same social media agency for the Lok Sabha 2019 elections, he added.
Elections to the 243-member Bihar legislative assembly, set to complete its tenure in November, but there are clamours for postponing the impending Bihar assembly elections.
Meanwhile, former CEC, S Y Quraishi urged the poll panel to ensure a level playing field in a mostly virtual campaign in Bihar election. In an article under the title ‘The corona election’, he asked, “Can the virtual rallies replace the door-to-door and large-scale physical campaigning that is the heart and soul of any democratic election? Not really.”
He said under these circumstances it is the responsibility of the panel to ensure a level playing field as digital campaign is a costly affair.
“This is where the issue of the level playing field is being raised by the Opposition parties. The arrangement of such facilities is evidently going to be a costly affair and the richer political parties will have a gala time in mobilizing voters, putting small regional/local parties at a disadvantage. Under the winner-takes-all voting system like ours, missing out even a single household could have a negative effect on a party’s winning chances”.
Congress said the ECI should revisit the recommendations made by the INC and to invite all political parties for a comprehensive discussion meeting where these issues can be discussed in a transparent and effective manner.
Venugopal warned that if the ECI falters in this bounden duty the consequences for democracy would be catastrophic.