What the Election Commission of India needs to learn about COVID and voting

Presidential elections were held in the United States in the peak of a countrywide COVID-19 outbreak in November 2020. The Donald Trump-led Republican campaign refused to tone down physical campaigning in light of the pandemic, for which they drew much flak. The Democrats did not do big rallies until the very end.

This was part of the Trump administration’s COVID denial that ultimately cost them the election. Nevertheless, nobody has accused the actual election of becoming a COVID super spreader event.

The Election Commission of India needs to study the US election and take some lessons from it. The usually laudable ECI has recently become a victim of its own hubris.

Much of the blame goes to Sunil Arora, the head of ECI who retired in April and will be remembered as one of the worst Chief Election Commissioners in the history of an esteemed Constitutional body. His successor Sushil Chandra must not make Arora’s mistakes.

Failing to implement protocols

The Madras High Court used very strong words in oral observations when it said the ECI officials should be “put on murder charges probably” for failing to implement COVID protocols in the conduct of state assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, West Bengal and the union territory of Puduchery.

Those elections were held in April-May.

In India there are elections all the time. You can postpone them once in a while due to a pandemic or a security situation but elections, like everything else, have to coexist with COVID.

The biggest mistake the ECI has made in regard to COVID is postal ballots. The idea has been explored as mere lip service. The ECI has allowed postal ballots only for those above 80 years of age, apart from people with disabilities, and COVID patients.

Even for these categories, obtaining a postal ballot was a bureaucratic nightmare. They had to fill elaborate forms and COVID patients needed to obtain COVID positive certificates from doctors. The ECI did very little publicity about this option. Rules were designed to discourage people from using it.

The ECI earlier toyed with the idea of allowing postal ballots for those above 65 years of age but then decided against it for ‘logistical’ reasons. That shows lack of courage to modify the election process in the face of a pandemic.

India has always had postal ballots for outstation government employees. The ECI wants Indian citizens living abroad to be able to vote. But when it came to COVID, it couldn’t find a way to arrange logistics to extend postal ballots to the wider population, not even after a year of COVID. That’s a shame.

In the United States, people were urged to use what they call mail-in ballots. These could just be downloaded, printed, filled, signed and posted. And they could be posted days in advance.

Early voting

Then there was “early voting” — in effect, people could go and vote over several days, thus reducing crowds at the polling booth. Why is the ECI so rigid about not modifying the election process for the pandemic? Do they not want to save lives?

That’s the voting part. Then there is campaigning. In theory the Election Commission has formulated rules about campaigning. These come into force only a month before voting day.

Small rallies, social distancing and so on. But these exist only on paper. Is the ECI powerless in implementing them? Is the ECI at the mercy of politicians about whether they follow these rules?

Not quite. The ECI enforces campaign expenditure rules very strictly. They order officials to go about removing every unauthorised poster, impound every car not cleared in advance. The idea is to make sure all candidates spend within the specified limit and people can’t just spend their way to victory.

The ECI is able to do such stringent enforcement because (a) it is a Constitutional body that enjoys great autonomy; and (b) because once it announces elections it takes over the bureaucracy, becoming a kind of super government for the election period.

That’s how powerful the ECI is. If it can’t force politicians to do smaller rallies, or replace rallies with small town hall meetings, we can safely presume the ECI doesn’t want to do it. This is nothing but wilful negligence.

No, elections should not be suspended because of COVID, especially now that vaccination has picked up. But the ECI must wake up and smell the coffee to modify the manner in which elections are held.



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