Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, Sakshi Sharda, Ishika Chaudhary, Chhavi Kapoor
From manifestos to rallies, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the electoral process and posed various challenges. To understand the intersection of the pandemic and electoral democracy, the Center for Human Dignity and Development (CHDD), IMPRI, New Delhi organized a Special Lecture – #WebPolicyTalk on Politicising the Pandemic: Impact on Electoral Democracy, by Maj. Gen. Anil Verma (Retd.)
The Electoral System and COVID-19
Maj Gen Anil Verma, Head, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) elucidated how the pandemic is being politicized and its impact on the electoral democracy. Covid-19 posed challenges we were inexperienced with. It required an immense effort, great responsibility, institutional susceptibility, and proactiveness to conduct the polls amidst the global pandemic. These unprecedented challenges led the governments at all levels to work in a state of radical uncertainty. The electoral system underwent a transformation from offline to online mode. For the first time ever the postal voting ballot system was made available to the PwD category and senior citizens during the post-Covid-19 polls.
The speaker highlighted the reports of the election watches and electoral studies conducted based on the polls in various states, from which he drew the attention towards the hike in positivity rate and the surge in fatalities caused by the post-pandemic polls especially in states where there were multiple phases. The practice of people, in reality, was nowhere closer to the Model Code of Conduct expected to be maintained by the people in light of the global pandemic.
The political emergency outweighed the medical emergency, causing the situation to further worsen. Numerous leaders promised free vaccines to millions. With the picture of the Prime Minister on it, the vaccination certificate acted as an instrument of an electoral campaign to the ruling party. Party leaders gloated massive turnouts at rallies despite the repeated warnings.
The EC continued to conduct elections in multiple phases. Despite the numerous orders of the court, no stringent measures were taken by the Election Commission (EC) to ensure that the covid-19 protocols are maintained. The courts took cognizance of the offense only by the time it became too late for any kind of protection. The EC was also partisan in its approach towards taking cognizance of the protocol violations by the political parties.
Maj Gen Verma also mentioned the major parties and the respective leaders who were guilty of the covid-19 protocol violations. The political influence on the constitutional powers of the EC affects electoral integrity and democratic values. The raging pandemic proved a strong case for delaying the conduct of elections where it might be threatening to human life and society.
The central government must take steps to enable the EC to conduct fair and impartial elections. The commission must try to fully utilize the powers vested in it by the law. The Commission must also ensure that it is not partial in its treatment of the political parties. EC should be manned by the people who are unbiased, impartial, and apolitical. ADR has already filed a writ petition seeking direction from the SC to constitute a neutral and independent collegium.
The responsibility to control the pandemic is vested on the Ministry of Home Affairs, Health & Family Welfare, and NDMA, who must be questioned for their failure to keep the situation under control. The EC cannot solely be blamed for the turmoil as the respective political parties should also be questioned for their contribution and involvement.
Violations of COVID-19 Protocols
Dr. Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi, expounded on the imminence of upholding democratic integrity by the impartial conduct of the elections. The discussant expressed his deep distress against political campaigns violative of the norms and protocols. He also expressed his discontentment against non-observance of the covid protocols, despite being the world’s largest democracy. The pandemic has a direct impact on voter turnout. The discussant also criticized the inefficiency and helplessness of the judiciary in keeping things under control.
Role of the Election Commission
Mr. Srinivas Alavilli, Head, Civic Participation, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, Bengaluru, insisted on the intensified politicizing of the pandemic, as public health is a matter of political importance. According to the discussant, EC has failed to achieve the very purpose for which it has been constituted. The membership of the EC is the most vital thing to protect. He assented with Maj Gen Verma that the Commission has to be manned by persons who are impartial and apolitical.
The pandemic is the latest edition of the limitation the EC has. The EC at hands of the people at power is a serious threat we are facing. The polls in WB were conducted in eight phases. The panel member expounded the attitude of an average Indian voter, who is politically conditioned to cast their vote to the winning party. We have reached a situation where governance is not a topic of elections. Public health is a joint responsibility of all political parties and not just the ruling party alone. We are normalizing the abnormal behavior of the political campaigns, he added.
He explained the importance of participatory democracy and it is best achieved at the local government level. Forums have to be created to invite public comments, he added. Public responses lead to governance reforms, for which there lies an imminent necessity to create active, aware, and informed citizens. He cited the example of leading cities constituting citizen committees at the ward level. The decentralized way of governance is better equipped to deal with the pandemic.
Question and Answer
Ms. Swati Solanki, Researcher IMPRI, raised the question of whom to be blamed whether the Government or the independent institutions for the aggravating crisis?
Maj Gen Verma stated the attitude of the political parties in disregarding what they want to ignore. He insisted on the necessity of the public to question the elected representatives to know what they want to, as the first and the best responses must come from the citizens aware and informed. As per the information commission, none of the political parties are subject to democracy, and the vitality of public participation in representing the public interest.
Mr. Srinivas also questioned the responsibility of the local level government leaders. Dr. Niranjan added that the executives enjoy the absolute majority, where they possessed unlimited powers. As long as the citizens of the country become real stakeholders in the democratic process, the true value of democracy is not upheld and the democratic integrity does not sustain anymore.
Maj Gen Verma concluded his presentation by summarizing his submissions and points.
Acknowledgment: Abraham Joseph is a Research Intern at IMPRI