Madras high court blames Election Commission for surge in Covid cases
The Madras high court on Monday observed that the Election Commission of India (ECI) was responsible for the second wave in the country and that its officials should probably be tried on murder charges for allowing political parties to hold massive rallies without following Covid-19 norms.
The first bench of chief justice Sanjib Banerjee and justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy warned ECI that the court could even stall the counting of votes on May 2 unless it produced a blueprint on April 30 on Covid-19 protocol at counting centres. “At no cost can counting result as a catalyst for a further surge, politics or no politics, whether the counting takes place in a staggered manner or is deferred,” the court said.
An official familiar with the functioning of ECI said that the poll watchdog has told the high court that according to the Covid-19 rules notified under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) has the responsibility to ensure the rules are followed. “Commission has always emphasised in its 21.8.2020 and all subsequent instructions that the State authorities shall ensure COVID compliance in the matter of public gatherings etc. for campaign purposes. At no occasion, the Commission takes over the task of SDMA for enforcement of COVID-19 instructions,” it told the high court, according to official who did not want to be named.
“The campaign [for Tamil Nadu] ended on 4.4.2021. Fortunately, the second wave of COVID-19 was yet to be visible fully by that time. Polling was conducted following all prescribed COVID appropriate measures on 6.4.2021, which witnessed good electoral participation with full compliance of norms by all concerned,” the commission told the high court, the officials said.
The election commission has come under criticism for its decision to allow political parties to wilfully flout Covid-19 protocol through huge rallies, with most participants, including the political leaders unmasked. The body has, from time to time, issued guidelines reiterating the importance of adhering to Covid-19 protocol but has steered well clear of acting against any leader or party for flouting these. ECI has also come under fire for staggering the West Bengal assembly elections across eight phases, and for making no effort to combine later phases even after it became clear that India was facing a serious health crisis.
“When campaigning was on going in Tamil Nadu, we did not have so many cases and polling also ended before cases began to rise,” said Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) spokesperson A Saravanan. “Perhaps ECI could have imposed certain curbs. Except for the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], all parties in Bengal asked for the last phases to be clubbed. Until Modi cancelled his rallies, ECI didn’t bring in restrictions and by then cases had exponentially risen.”
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee welcomed the Madras high court observations “which clearly said ECI cannot escape its responsibility”. “Both Prime Minister Modi and EC are responsible for the (current) situation (of Covid spreading in the state),” Banerjee alleged at a workers meeting in North Kolkata on Monday.
The HC order was passed during a hearing on a writ petition filed by Tamil Nadu transport minister MR Vijayabhaskar seeking a direction for safety measures and fairness during counting in Karur constituency from where he is contesting.
“You are the only institution that is singularly responsible for the situation today,” the chief justice said during the hearing. “No action against political parties taking rallies despite court orders. Your election commission officials should be put up on murder charges probably.”
In its order copy released later in the day, the court had toned down its observations against the election body as the statement on murder charges wasn’t part of the written order.
The bench noted that face masks, sanitizers weren’t used and no social distancing was maintained during election campaigning. “Were you on another planet when the election rallies were held?” the chief justice asked the ECI counsel, Niranjan Rajagoapalan.
Stating that public health is of paramount importance, the court said, “It is only when a citizen survives that he’ll be able to enjoy the rights that a democratic republic guarantees.” The court directed ECI to file a blueprint after a detailed consultation with the state health secretary.
Assembly elections were held in four states- Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, West Bengal and the union territory of Puducherry . Except for Bengal, elections have concluded in other states. All these states are seeing a surge in cases, but so is almost every part of India.
India ended Monday with 319,509 news cases of Covid-19 and 2,764 new deaths, taking its totally tally to 17,625,626 cases and 197,901 deaths. Daily cases have risen over 400% since April 1, and daily deaths, over 600%.