View: With another 5 assembly elections on the cards, need to guard against two viruses, not one
Panchayat elections of UP have provided the spark for alert preparations between political contestants. Furious consultations, strategy huddles, early alliances, party reorganisation, government re—fixing, give and take –– all happening out there. Uttar Pradesh, like West Bengal in the last round, is set to be the energy centre of the upcoming five polls that includes Goa, Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand. Political formations and prospective candidates have started picking up their electoral gear.
For election managers, every election poses new challenges; the old ones sometimes get worse.
Let Summer not Repeat
How fervently one hopes that the harsh experience of this summer series does not flow over to the polls scheduled early next year. Once bitten, twice shy; the fortification against the pandemic can be expected to be more stringent during the election process, irrespective of any changing contours of the Covid curve. Higher courts had made a loud expression of concern regarding Covid management during the last election campaign though the whole issue later got digressed toward media freedom with the top court writing eloquently on the subject.
The Election Commission of India had a laudable victory over the pandemic in the 2020 Bihar elections, at the peak of the first surge but, like the rest of the country and like all eminent agencies, it was severely challenged by the ferocious return of the virus. The simple fact is that EC is no disease control organisation and election-related events could not be created as islands of Covid appropriate behaviour when masks were dropping all around. The ECI had a list of Covid prevention protocols in place for the last five elections, a much longer list than the one for Bihar. There were more and more drastic cuts in rallies and processions towards the 7th and 8th phases of polls and a ban on victory processions. A lot was done, but as some might argue, not enough.
While the next possible surges and mutants would get obvious attention, this pre-occupation, however, cannot sideline another virus, that is scarier than the resurgent Covid 19.
Not a Model Contest
In the campaign theatre of the last five elections, the verbal violence was unacceptable. Personal slander and name calling injected sufficient ugliness to the elections that are eulogised as a festival of democracy. Religious institutions, symbolisms and sentiments were evoked more often than not, whether in Kerala where three religious communities hold significant parts of the electorate each or in West Bengal where majority-minority equations tend to get pushed to the threshold.
The Model Code conclusively states: “There shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes.” In spirit, if not in technicality, exactly the opposite was evident on the ground. Not that development, jobs, healthcare (thanks to Covid), women, corruption and regional issues did not come up in the campaign discourse; but it is the identity politics that took the centre stage, bluntly or in subterfuge. So much was the muscle flexing that holders of constitutional offices are finding it difficult to return to normal business relations post elections. One shudders to think what predicament such an approach could throw up during elections in Uttar Pradesh, that holds pent up volatility even in ordinary times.
Ethnic and caste identities apart, one saw in Tamil Nadu a galore of freebies. Political parties were in competition to present material allurements. The Madras High Court made some scathing remarks on the freebie culture, coming down on voters as well. Election Commission’s agencies seized about a Rs 1,000 crore worth of cash, liquor, narcotics, precious metals and other items during the last assembly elections, a record. Threat of such vile influences loom large over forthcoming elections in Punjab and other states.
Onus on Voter
This scenario, combined with politically calculated lies unleashed through the limitless social media, can constitute amoral mind capturing that is worse than the menace of booth capturing of the early decades. While retaining due respect for the proverbial wisdom of the Indian voter, an environment so intense can dim wisdom; the elector may not remain immune from the cacophony of malware all around.
Soon after the five assembly elections, the ECI has set up a committee to push for a wide-ranging reform in areas of Covid protocol, enforcement of MCC, inducement of free election and protection to electoral machinery. One expects to see some defining reforms to secure the next five and all future elections. The voters’ pledge popularised by the Election Commission of India is to vote in election “fearlessly and without being influenced by considerations of religion, race, caste, community, language or any inducement”. The onus is on the voter to protect his turf. Politicians may become modern day Pied Pipers but the voters need not be the children of Hamelin.
(The author is former Director General, Election commission of India. The opinions expressed in this piece are that of the author and do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com )