After a lot deliberation, Election Commission of India finally gave a green signal for the conduct of Assembly elections in Bihar, but with a very tight guidelines. Even though the state has been grappling with several problem ~ rising Covid-19 cases, floods that hit half its districts and migrant crisis ~ the Election Commission was not in a mood to defer the polls. However, Opposition parties said they were not in favour of holding elections during the Corona pandemic. But after ECI’s declaration, political parties have no other option but to prepare for the polls. For the first time elections will be held under unusual circumstances with extraordinary guidelines.
Why election is mandatory
The tenure of Bihar’s 16th Legislative Assembly ends on 29 November, 2020, and as per Constitution, elections have to be conducted before the tenure ends. Therefore, the commission has no other option but to conduct the poll. In case of deferment of the poll, the state will be brought under Governor’s rule. But the Constitution says elections can be postponed for unavoidable reasons like war, epidemic, pandemic or natural disasters. But in the past, ECI has never postponed elections citing pandemic. At the same time, it is not only Bihar but many states that will soon have Assembly elections. Meanwhile, the pandemic does not seem to end in coming months. The World Health Organisation has also concurred, saying it hopes to end this pandemic before two years. This means, the pandemic is not going to end soon. Now the bigger concern for the EC is upcoming Assembly elections in West Bengal (30 May, 2021), Assam (31 May, 2021), Kerala (1 June, 2021), Tamil Nadu (24 May, 2021) and Puducherry (8 June, 2021). Former Chief Election Commission S Y Qureshi wrote in a publication that unlike the Rajya Sabha/Legislative Council elections, which can be postponed indefinitely, the EC can postpone elections to the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies for a period of only six months, the constitutionally defined limit between two sessions of the House/Assembly (Article 85(1) and Article 174(1) of the Constitution, respectively). For a further period of extension, the ball is in the executive’s court, which will be faced with two possibilities. The first is proviso to Article 172(1), whereby during a state of Emergency, an election can be postponed for one year in addition to a period of six months after Emergency is lifted. The rider, however, is that a state of Emergency can be declared only if there is a threat to the security and sovereignty of the nation, not if there is an epidemic or a pandemic. The second option is to declare President’s rule in the State, enabled by Article 356(1) of the Constitution. But its limits have been repeatedly defined by the Supreme Court. In simple terms, elections can’t be deferred for longer period.
Election commission guidelines
Before conducting the elections, ECI sought suggestions from all major parties in the states. In fact, the parties have made many suggestions but the ECI has shortlisted a few. Various measures will be put in place in Bihar. For the first time any candidate can file nomination online. The candidate can also transfer security deposit money online. Looked at as a good step by the Election Commission, this may well become a trend in future.
All the registered voters will have to wear gloves and face masks before casting a vote or touching the EVM machines. The voters will also get hand sanitisers and face masks at the polling centre. Kids accompanying their parents to the polling centre will be provided facial PPE kits.
During the process of identification of voters, they will be asked to lower their facemask for identification when required.
The maximum limit of voters inside a polling station has been restricted to 1,000 instead of 1,500 as was the norm in previous elections.
Thermal scanners will also be installed at the entry point of each polling booth to ensure that any symptomatic Covid-19 patient is not allowed to enter. Either polling booth staff or paramedics or ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers will be employed for this purpose. Every booth will be mandatorily sanitized, preferably, a day before voting.
Thermal screening of all persons will be mandatory, and no symptomatic coronavirus patient permitted inside the booth. However, as per the Election Commission they will be allowed at last hours.
For the first time, the ECI will allow postal ballot facility for voters above 80 years, persons with disabilities, people employed in notified essential services and those who are Covid-19 positive or possibly infected.
In terms of campaign, ECI has mandated that candidates/parties contesting in the elections can hold public meetings and road shows subject to containment measures issued by the Home Ministry to check the spread of Covid-19. Also, only five members, including the candidate, can participate in door-to-door campaigning.
A helpdesk will be set up for distribution of tokens to voters on a first-come-first-serve basis to avoid queues. Markers will also be used to demonstrate social distancing. The help of booth-level workers or volunteers will be sought to enforce the same.
Large halls are to be identified and utilised to ensure social distancing. Concerned officers will also be instructed to mobilise an adequate number of vehicles for movement of polling. How much of this is carried out on ground is to be seen.
Precedent in any other country
Yes, a few countries like South Korea, have shown how elections can be conducted even during pandemic. The southeast Asian country conducted its National election, recording a voter turnout of 66.2 per cent, the highest in 28 years. But the scenario in Bihar is different. As per the official ECI data, the state had registered 6,62,43,193 voters in the 2015 Assembly elections. Around 15,35,767 more voters were added to the rolls earlier this year and will cast their votes for Bihar’s 243 Assembly seats. Managing this large number of voters will be an uphill task for the Election Commission of India in this pandemic.
What are the political parties’ views?
Bihar has always been a political hub in India. Therefore, the state has all the major parties working on ground. From national parties to regional, Bihar has a presence of all these parties. But not all parties, mainly opposition, are in favour of conducting the elections. They have written to the EC for the deferment of election. But the ruling JDU and BJP are in favour of conducting the election. Not the opposition, LJP, an alliance of ruling NDA, vociferously protested against having any pool in pandemic and flood.
What are the demands of political parties?
As the election guidelines were declared, all parties have no other option but to start preparing for the poll. But these Opposition parties do have a few demands. RJD, Congress and AIMIM want the Bihar Assembly elections to be held through ballot papers. During the election Crores of voters will be exposed to the virus as they will have to touch the buttons to cast their votes. Therefore, using ballot papers would prevent these voters from getting infected in the polling booths. The main Opposition party of Bihar, RJD, wants life insurance coverage for voters.