The Madras High Court has pulled no punches in holding the Election Commission of India (ECI) ‘singularly’ responsible for the spread of the second wave of Covid-19 in the country. The court has even said that ECI officials may be booked on murder charges. This is a scathing indictment of the poll panel’s conduct of the elections in four states and a UT over the past month amid the devastating pandemic. Sadly, the strictures have shown the ECI in a poor light because of its decisions, though the polling staff had accomplished the Herculean task of holding elections during a health emergency.
There is no doubt that polls are a constitutional obligation that the ECI has to fulfil, come what may, but the sheer chaos they unleashed could have been avoided with foresight and planning. The poll schedule for West Bengal — eight phases spread over 34 days — had come under fire from the outset. Such a long-drawn-out exercise was a recipe for disaster as the virus was getting uncontrollable by the day. Even as Covid cases kept rising in recent weeks, the ECI refused to club the remaining phases, citing logistic challenges and legal constraints. Though the spectre of large gatherings becoming superspreaders of infection loomed large, the commission allowed crowded roadshows and rallies. It was as late as April 22, with only two phases of polling left, that the ECI imposed a ban on roadshows and vehicle rallies in the state.
The poll panel has now prohibited all victory processions and celebrations after the counting of votes on May 2. The move is welcome, but it will all boil down to enforcement. It remains to be seen what action, if any, would be taken against the offenders. There is a growing perception that the ECI is reluctant to act against certain big fish. The credibility of this constitutional body has repeatedly come under a cloud as doubts have been raised about its neutrality. The ECI needs to go the extra mile to dispel such notions and reaffirm its commitment to remain Indian democracy’s watchdog.