By Dr. Duggaraju Srinivasa Rao
Elections are due in five north Indian states and the campaign is in full steam and Omicron, a variant of corona, is competing with political speed and is even threatening to derail the plans of the parties. The Omicron threat is being seen as a major health threat. The Allahabad and Uttarakhand high courts have suggested the election commission of India (ECI) to consider the postponement of elections in the respective states. There is chance of other state high courts issuing similar direction in coming days. The opposition parties on one hand are criticizing the governments in their failure to contain the spread of virus and are also demanding the conduct of elections as per EC statement. The staring Omicron surge, the directions of judiciary and the contradictory stands of political parties is making the ECI to ponder over its position as the constitutional body empowered with the conduct of elections in the country.
The ECI faced this dilemma in 2021 too and went ahead with the conduct of elections in Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Assam despite the criticism of responsible for second wave of Covid19, though the facts are not supportive of such criticism as EC felt sticking to constitutional obligation is better. At that time the surge in Covid19 and second wave effect began in Maharashtra, Kerala and Delhi where there were no elections. The latest footprint graphic of Omicron shows that the cases of new variant are low in the poll bound Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab where high decibel campaign and crowd gatherings are already on. The states, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka, Delhi, Rajasthan, where there is no electioneering are high on Omicron and that counters the link between elections and corona spread.
The constitutional obligation of conducting elections bestowed on the central and state election commissions and the judicial interventions in the conduct of elections is compelling them to act in way differing from their own assessment. The case of Uttar Pradesh where the state election panel to delay the rural civic body elections were not accepted by the high court of that state. Despite the state poll panel’s undertaking to conduct the elections by May end of 2021, the high court ordered the elections to be conducted by April 30. The high court of UP did this despite the looming covid19 situation as their lordships relied on the constitution where elections were mandated by the end of five year term of elected body. It is a fact that Article 243-E mandated such election as point out by the petitioner and high court agreed with it and forced Adityanadh lead to conduct the local body elections and take the blame for it.
The debate on pandemic time elections was there since the China born corona made its presence in India and the economic and health situation of India was hit. However India had over 25 types of elections were conducted in India during the pandemic time. They include the elections for state assemblies, by elections to parliament and state and also the urban and rural local bodies. These are all conducted after the consultation with political parties. Every time one party or the other preferred postponement of election citing covid and that started with the RJD of Bihar. The ECI preferred to go ahead with the elections with the suggestion of avoiding the physical rallies and preferring technology based campaign. The virtual meets were then a success but that was not repeated in high voltage Bengal or Kerala elections as parties preferred physical rallies. How far political parties followed the covid guidelines of ECI can be seen from the videos of electioneering. It was sheer luck of the people that there was no spike of covid after such a massive gatherings in those states.
But now it is a variant which is six times faster in spread and more virulent as is reported elsewhere. Then what should the ECI should do now? Whether it should consider the suggestion of high courts and postpone the elections or go ahead with the elections as was done earlier in 2021. Then it preferred to abide by its constitutional obligation of conducting the election on time. Then the union government has not interfered with the functioning of the ECI. But now the UP elections being paramount to the future of Modi government and the reports of ECI officials having an unofficial meet in PM’s office will change the scenario and the Modi cabinet suggest a postponement of elections as it suits its strategy of nullifying the current anger of farmers in the western UP where Jats dominate. ECI may not be in a position to take a decision on the postponement of elections but can send its assessment on Omicron situation to the government to take a decision on that, as the ECI can only extend the time for completing the elections after the poll process was has started as it has done in 1991 in the wake of assassination of Rajiv Gandhi during the election campaign.
If ECI sends an assessment report favouring the postponement of elections to the government and Modi cabinet accepts that report then should necessarily come the imposition of President’s rule in the states or it may have extend the existing term of assemblies by a year through an extraordinary ordinance. The central government in the current political situation may not consider the second option and the first option will create political storm and may give a political weapon to the opposition to mount on Modi.
ECI may go by via media of conducting the elections with minimum risks in potential surge during the electioneering. Curtailing the campaign days, minimizing the campaign hours, restricting the massive rallies and meets suggesting the virtual campaign. How many parties will agree for these suggestions is the moot question and how the ECI will fulfill its constitutional obligation with minimum friction with parties will be seen in coming days.
(Author is retired professor and occasional contributor for dailies and magazines on politics and environmental issues. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at email@example.com)