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This article is written by Saurav Kataria, a BBA LLB student of H.P. National Law University, Shimla. In this article, the author has discussed the order of the Calcutta High Court and analyzed the need for the order.

Introduction 

Electoral campaigning is one important component of the political process that has been considered to be affected by the pandemic. Political parties and politicians use campaigns to disseminate their views on how public policies should change or stay the same in the future. In these campaigns, the discussions are usually about how the country will progress in the future. These campaigns allow people to have more options about whom they should vote at the ballot box. This campaign helps people think about their democratic needs, and these are like the rituals of a democratic process.

However, as this election campaign helps people to decide their leader, in the current scenario these campaigns not only include the conversation of Ideas but there is a major risk of spreading COVID-19. In these campaigns, there is a high number of gatherings due to which there is much more risk of trading coronavirus. So, as a result, there is an argument on whether the campaign should be limited or cancelled for public health or not. 

Election campaigns: reason behind the rising COVID-19 cases

It was around late February and early March when the cases of COVID-19 started increasing in the country and the number of cases went past 15000 per day. The second wave of the virus started with the announcements of the Assembly elections of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry. Firstly, Maharashtra began reporting high numbers of COVID-19 cases, whereas the other states were not reporting a huge number of COVID-19 cases. But in late March, most of the places in India had a significant increase in COVID-19 cases.

When the Assembly elections in the states of West Bengal, Kerala, and Assam were announced the election campaigns were arranged. At the same time, COVID-19 cases started increasing in particular states. Although there is no significant establishment that the election campaigns are directly linked with the rise in COVID-19 cases, it seems to be obvious when people started gathering in such a large number that gave the virus a way to spread easily. On the 5th of April 2021, the country crossed 100000 cases in a day for the first time as all were aware of the fact that the West Bengal assembly elections were divided into 8 phases and the campaigning continued in the elections for over 2 months due to which the states suffered a major setback in the COVID-19 cases. The WHO named this mass gathering a perfect storm and also stated that such gathering is the reason for the outbreak of the virus. WHO also said that low vaccination rates in the country are also a reason for the increasing cases in the country. Due to this, the Election Commission was heavily criticized for breaching COVID-19 protocols during the election campaigns.

The Madras High Court said that it was the responsibility of the Election Commission to make sure that the campaigns that were being held should have followed COVID-19 protocols strictly. It was very evident that the protocols were not at all taken seriously and as a result, there was a hike in COVID-19 cases, which showed the irresponsibility of the Election Commission in handling elections during a pandemic. In these campaigns, members of various political parties and candidates were also seen to be not following COVID-19 protocols. The Madras High Court also added that the institution is solely responsible for the second wave of the COVID-19 on the Election Commission.

The judges of the Madras High Court were not satisfied with the Election Commission not coming up with strict rules and regulations for making people follow the social distancing norms. The court said that the elections are necessary but public health is of paramount importance. When it comes to the health of citizens no other thing can come before it. Some safety measures should be followed in which the Election Commission has failed by not coming up with strict safety measures.

When the elections started, the virus was at a modest stage and cases were in control but when the first phase of the eight phases of the West Bengal Assembly Elections started, then the cases gradually started increasing. It only took 34 days to double the number of COVID-19 cases in the state. The positivity rate also increased from 6.43 % to 7.7 %, and this was a clear indication that the election campaign has induced a spike in the COVID-19 cases in the state. Similar situations could be seen in other states like Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala where elections were held at the same time.

Experts say that the prolonged election campaign in the West Bengal Assembly Elections is the major reason for the increase in the number of active cases in the state. Due to this, the cases increased to about 48 times in the state. Most of the people started criticizing the election campaign for spreading the virus. Also, it is said that the reason behind increasing cases in rural areas of West Bengal in West Bengal Assembly Elections was that the people did not follow the safety guidelines. Seeing this situation one can easily say that the priority of the political parties was to win the election, and not to take care of public health.

An overview of the Calcutta HC order 

After a significant rise in the COVID-19 cases in the state during the sixth phase of the West Bengal assembly election, the Calcutta High Court expressed dissatisfaction with the acts of the Election Commission. The Hon’ble Calcutta High Court opined that the election commission is just issuing circulars and there is no compliance and implementation of such circulars in order to tackle the current coronavirus situation. The bench added that the Election Commission has all the power to maintain safety measures in the election campaigns but they are just passing the circular and leaving it to the people. This was all when the High Court was hearing the case in which it was contended that the Election Commission has no constitutional power to implement COVID-19 guidelines in the state during the polls. The court added that the Election Commission was well aware of the pandemic situation in the country. Even then the elections in West Bengal were held in eight phases. The court added that all the parties with thousands of supporters, not wearing masks and not following social distancing norms were the reason for increasing cases in the state. The court stated that they are not satisfied with the Election Commission’s handling of the West Bengal elections.

It was also said by the court that the country is dealing with extraordinary situations so there should be some extraordinary measures which should be followed, but in the election campaigns, the COVID-19 protocols were not followed and hence there was a spike in the cases of COVID-19. The court also said that the irresponsible behaviour of some of the members of society cannot be permitted to endanger the lives of the other members. The Court ordered the administration that if such a person is found, then there must be some strict action taken against them. The court also ordered all the members of the political parties and also all the candidates of the assembly election to hold the meeting to ensure that there should be some preventive measures to be taken. Wearing a mask should be made compulsory to ensure the safety of the people who are indulged in the election campaigns.

Key points of the order

The Calcutta High Court on 13th April, 2021 directed the strict implementation of COVID-19 guidelines during the West Bengal election campaign, the key directly from the High Court. These were as follows: 

  • All the gatherings should make the wearing of masks mandatory.
  • Sanitizers must be made available for all and the norms of social distancing should be followed.
  • The administration must ensure that there is no public gathering for any religious purpose.
  • Awareness should be spread amongst all the people who are participating in such gatherings.
  • All the members of the political party and the candidates who were representing their respective parties in the campaign must ensure that the people who are gathering should wear masks and maintain social distance with each other..
  • The District Magistrate and the West Bengal Chief Electoral Officer will be held responsible for ensuring that the guidelines are followed by everyone.
  • In case it is difficult to ensure social distancing, the administration can take recourse from the provisions of Section 144 of CrPC so that they can make people follow the norms of COVID-19.
  • West Bengal Chief Electoral Officer has powers to give further guidelines to check the spread of COVID-19.
  • West Bengal Chief Electoral officer will have to fill an affidavit form in which he must mention all the measures taken for the implementation of the guidelines for the safety measures against Coronavirus in elections.

Need for the order

The High Court needed to interfere because the people were not serious about COVID-19. The need for the order was because even the Election Commission who had the power to pass guidelines and make strict safety measures for the people who gathered in the election campaign was also not taking any steps. People’s health was not the priority, rather election and election results were. The High Court order was necessary because the cases were rising at a very fast rate and on the day when the order came, the state of West Bengal recorded the highest-ever single-day spike of 4817 Coronavirus cases.

As we all know that India is not the country in which medical facilities are that good and the High Court was aware of that. This order was in favour of the public and it was the need of the hour. It will be very difficult for the states or the country to get control over COVID-19 without having proper medical facilities. Political parties were not concerned about the People’s health who were gathered in their election campaign, their motive was just to win the elections in the state which was a big concern that is why the High Court came and made some strict orders against the election campaign. The election campaign could have made safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but it was just passed a circular and left to the people which was not correct on behalf of the commission.

Conclusion 

Concluding the article, it is very clear that political parties are more concerned about winning the elections. They were not concerned about the voters and we can see this in the West Bengal elections. The Election Commission could have easily made strict norms but due to the pressure of the political parties, the commission was not able to perform its functions properly. In the elections, we can see that political parties are the ones not following any COVID-19 protocols due to which there had been a large number of spikes in the COVID-19 cases not in the particular state, but all over the country. The interference of the High Court was necessary as the cases were rising. Some norms like wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and using hand sanitizer should be made so strict that if any of the people break such rules, they would be fined or imprisoned. The decision given by the High Court and the key directions provided in the order were absolutely okay and in favour of public healthcare because of the condition of medical facilities available in the country. 

References


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