EC bans roadshows, restricts size of gatherings in Bengal
The Election Commission of India (ECI) on Thursday banned cycle or motorbike rallies, padyatras and limited public events to 500 people for the remaining two phases of the West Bengal elections, saying political parties had flouted Covid norms despite an alarming spike in infections.
The order came with roughly four days left for campaigning in the eight-phase polls and critical remarks by the Calcutta high court on the poll panel’s enforcement of Covid guidelines.
“The commission has noted with anguish that many political parties/candidates are still not adhering to prescribed safety norms during public gatherings and this is making it difficult for the state/district election machineries to enforce the aforesaid directions fully,” ECI said in its order.
“Therefore… in addition to the Commission’s earlier orders… with effect from 7pm of April 22, no roadshows/padyatras… cycle/bike/vehicle rallies will be permissible. No public meetings beyond the limit of 500 people… (with) adequate social distancing shall be permissible,” the order added.
Since late February, when the elections were announced, daily Covid cases have increased in the state at least 50 times, according to official figures. On Thursday, the state posted XXX cases and xxx deaths. Experts link the spike to mask-less rallies where thousands of people jostle with each other in violation of social distancing guidelines.
The commission revoked any prior permissions granted for political events. Forty-three seats across Bengal voted in the sixth phase on Thursday. The seventh and the eighth phases, for 34 and 35 seats, respectively, will be held on April 26 and 29.
Last week, ECI banned campaigning between 7 pm and 10 am, increased the silence period from 48 hours to 72 hours for the last three phases and warned political parties to strictly adhere to Covid guidelines.
Nearly all parties have imposed restrictions on their election campaigns. Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his events in the state on Thursday to chair a high-level meeting to assess the gravity of the Covid-19 situation.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has scaled back public events to 500 people, while Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has decided to campaign only virtually. On Sunday, former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi called off his public events in the state.
The Commission received requests from TMC to clubbing the last phases of the polls but said on Wednesday that merging the rounds was not feasible under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. In two separate orders issued earlier, the commission also warned political parties of strict action in case the safety norms were flouted.
TMC’s Rajya Sabha leader Derek O’Brien severely criticised the WHICH decision. “The EC does not even pretend it’s independent anymore. Not a fig leaf of pretence. Beyond Extensively Compromised,” he said. TMC said the poll panel took the decision only after the PM cancelled his meetings in the state.
Former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi said the decision was better late than never. “It’s a good step,” he said. “They could have taken the step earlier as well to contain the spread of Covid-19 as the consequences of the crowds are for everyone to see.”