Sticking to the same number of phases for the five state elections as in 2017 with a similar timespan, the Election Commission of India has taken the unprecedented step of banning all road shows and physical rallies from the onset till January 15 and will review the matter depending on the Covid-19 pandemic situation. In doing so, the ECI seems to have taken a lesson from West Bengal elections.
“The review on physical rallies and road shows will be done after January 15 as the situation is dynamic and we do not know if the pandemic will accelerate or decelerate,” Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra said, announcing the election dates on a day when the country had hit 1.41 lakh daily Covid-19 cases.
Chandra said the election expenditure limits had been increased two days ago to factor in digital campaigning and parties were being advised to conduct campaigning in virtual and mobile mode rather than physical mode. Monitoring will be done by State Disaster Management Authority and the central observers.
Uttar Pradesh will poll in seven phases like in 2017, from February 10 till March 7, starting from western UP to eastern UP. Manipur will poll in two phases like in 2017 on February 27 and March 3. Uttarakhand, Goa and Punjab will poll in a single phase like in 2017 but on the same day, February 14. All five state election results will be declared on March 10, Thursday.
The EC has also directed that all election officials will be doubly vaccinated and precautionary dose will also be given to them “to be fully safe”. The polling time will be increased by an hour, the CEC said.
Many experts have predicted that the peak of the third Covid-19 wave could come in late January or early February and the cases could keep rising till then.
The CEC said ramping up vaccination will be crucial as the polling will be held in February. So far, 53% eligible population has been fully vaccinated in Uttar Pradesh while this level is even lower at 44% in Manipur and Punjab.
In Goa and Uttarakhand, the double vaccination level is high at 96% and 83%, respectively. The Election Commission said it has asked the poll-bound states to increase vaccination so that maximum people are double-vaccinated soon.
Learning from West Bengal
The EC had banned road shows and public meetings of more than 500 people in the last two phases of the West Bengal elections in April 2021 after Covid-19 numbers had risen during the second wave. The poll body noted that political parties and candidates had not adhered to prescribed safety norms during the public gatherings.
Before this, on April 16, 2021, it had banned all campaigning between 7pm and 10am and extended the silence period for the remaining phases to 72 hours but desisted from banning road shows and rallies. The EC had put the onus on the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) to enforce Covid-appropriate protocols.
By now banning rallies and road shows from the onset, the EC seems to have learnt its lesson from the West Bengal experience. CEC Sushil Chandra on Saturday said if rallies and road shows are allowed subsequently in these five state elections after review, the SDMAs will enforce the prescribed Covid-19 guidelines.