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    View: Democratic exercise prevails despite Covid-19

    Synopsis

    A month ago, there was a virtual mode discussion among election management bodies from about 50 countries on the predicament thrown up by Covid-19. The Association of World Election Bodies, with India as the chair, appeared determined not to let democratic elections go into a quarantine.

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    A corona code of conduct remains in place alongside the Model Code of Conduct. Yet to call the Bihar election a Covid election will be an oversimplification.
    By: Akshay Rout

    A month ago, there was a virtual mode discussion among election management bodies from about 50 countries on the predicament thrown up by Covid-19. The Association of World Election Bodies, with India as the chair, appeared determined not to let democratic elections go into a quarantine. In Bihar, what is in view is a tightrope walk between India’s norms of election management that Hillary Clinton described as the gold standard and the Covid norms of the day.

    The Core Is Intact
    Of course, poll managers hold a staggering ammunition of 700,000 hand sanitisers, 4.6 million masks, 600,000 PPE kits, 670,000 face shields, 2.3 million pairs of hand gloves and more. A corona code of conduct remains in place alongside the Model Code of Conduct. Yet to call the Bihar election a Covid election will be an oversimplification. All standard operational procedures – campaign regulation, alertness to left-wing extremism, polling station management, transparent services of EVMs and VVPATs, deployment of observers and special observers, a hawk’s eye on election expenditure, grievance redressal and communication network – are in place. Political advertisements face diligent pre-certification; restrictions have been mounted on publication during prohibited periods. Deviant behaviour in social media in terms of fake news and hate posts faces hot pursuit. An Election Commission of India (ECI) visit to ground zero that amounts to planting the election flag has duly taken place.

    Will They turn up?
    There’s a vibrant debate around how many of the 73 million electors will show up amidst the general health imperative not to venture out. The state had registered 56.8% voter turnout in 2015, a record since 2000, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, voting went past 57%. Bihar has meanwhile surprised by drastically containing the Covid positivity rate, and this can only help. Most of the migrants are on the electoral roll and expected to vote. ECI’s programme SVEEP, which charted a spirited path to maximise registration and turnout during the past 10 years, remains proactive but anchors more on contactless IEC techniques to handhold the voter on a safe walk to the polling station and back. In ECI's goal of free and fair election, ‘participation’ was added in recent years; ‘safe election’ is the addition of Covid.
    Democratic Exercise Prevails Despite Covid-19
    Politicians Unlocked
    One key factor is the political competition being sufficient or not sufficient enough to ignite voting. The answers will continue to unfold till the three poll dates. Shedding initial protestations and tentativeness, commanders of political formations are already using sharp skills and sharper tongues to checkmate opponents. Star campaigners are not allowed a free flow, but political parties are availing a calibrated mix of interpersonal campaign allowed by the EC, while virtual and mass media campaigns hold a larger sway. It’s actually all on, though with a mask on face.

    Tactical Moves
    Extreme situations have tested election managers in the past; these were resolved by innovative harnessing of the Constitution given discretion. The pandemic has triggered some key responses – online nomination, extension of polling time, postal ballot facility to those in quarantine, last hour voting provision for the Covid-affected and reduction of voter per booth limit to 1,000 from earlier 1,500. The last provision alone has resulted in over 60% increase in polling stations and consequential logistic challenges. ECI’s decision to double the public broadcast time should help political parties handicapped by physical distancing from the electors.

    Pledge to Redeem

    By November 10, two results are awaited in the world’s largest Covid time polls – one is about who the Bihar electorate awards the magic mark of 122 assembly seats, the other is about the debut fight between the ballot and the virus. The yield could inspire confidence well beyond the electoral arena and is likely to percolate beyond India’s borders. The vote looks to be surging forward.

    (The writer is former director general, Election Commission of India)
    (Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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