Voting in the shadow of Covid-19: How the EC prepared for Bihar polls

The ECI ordered that polling materials, banners, posters, etc, needed to be stored in large well-ventilated halls.
Few realise the intensive work that has gone into ensuring the elections to the Bihar assembly – the first set of state-level elections to be conducted under the shadow of Covid-19 – are seamless, without any complaint from anyone, whether voters or candidates, and the spirit of democracy is upheld.

But how to conduct an election amid a disease that fundamentally deters large gatherings? The Election Commission of India (ECI) battled with ideas and logistics to finally arrive at a solution which, while not optimal, ensured the spirit of the election was retained.

The first set of elections to be held after the Covid-19 pandemic was declared, were to the Rajya Sabha. As these are indirect, their management was not that hard. These were followed by the election of the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha – again, not so difficult to handle because the pool of those voting was limited (Members of the Rajya Sabha).

Said Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar: “even amid the pandemic, electors have high expectations for the smooth conduct of elections. We have to protect democratic rights, no matter what the extent of the challenge, but also ensure health  safety and security”.

Preparation for Bihar and other assembly elections

But it was the Bihar assembly election (and by elections) that represented the real challenge. Thinking on this began in May, 2020, nearly five months ahead of the actual poll, incorporating best practices from various countries including South Korea, which have held elections in the midst of a pandemic. A framework was put before the local administration. These covered the following broad heads:

· Electors: no one could be deprived of a chance to vote. But there were those hit by Covid-19 and these voters fell in several categories – the quarantined, the infected and the suspected and hospitalised. How could a protocol be put in place so that this category of voters got the chance to cast their ballot? The situation was complex because of the dynamic nature of the disease. And then, there was the question of those above 80 who needed to protected from the infection.

· Polling stations: how to ensure the best layout and containment barriers, flow of persons, incident response, etc

· Counting centres: controlling the flow of persons.

· Polling officers: their protection was primary – they would be sitting and supervising the election, vulnerable to contact with thousands, possibly lakhs of people thronging to cast their vote. They needed special training , PPE kits, gloves and other protective equipment….

· Postal ballot: how could this be used for early election and as a measure in itself ?

· Number of polling stations: The infected needed to get a chance to vote: could they be put together to vote in possibly the last hour of voting so that they were not a danger to others?

Following up from this and the interaction with state governments, the ECI decided on the following

· The appointment of one Covid-19 officer

· State governments were left free to devise their own systems and no centralised Standard Operating Procedure was issued by the central EC

Between June 1 and 18, state Chief Election Officers (CEOs) developed their own systems and plans for elections which were very specific. For instance, Jharkhand was permitted to segregate one polling station only for Covid-19 positive voters. Only in one state, did the CEOs follow a use-and discard system for the indelible ink marker. All the logistics – of poll personnel, equipment, movement, etc – was planned to the last detail.

General guidelines were issued to all personnel: there was nothing unpredictable or surprising about these. They stipulated that all election-related activity required mandatory masks, thermal scanning of all persons, sanitiser and soap must be provided, all activity must take place in large halls to ensure social distancing and preparation and sanitisation of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) needed to be done periodically.

Once the election got underway, there were other mandatory procedures: when people came to file nomination (routinely done amid a crowd of supporters of the candidate) only two persons could accompany the candidate who would be allowed only two vehicles – not a convoy of trucks and tractors, as was the practice previously.

The ECI ordered that polling materials, banners, posters, etc, needed to be stored in large well-ventilated halls. Premises where voting was to take place were to be sanitised and sealed a day earlier. Para-health or Asha workers were to be pressed into service for thermal scanning of voters and sanitisation was to be done regularly through the polling exercise.

But what about the campaign itself? The ECI had stringent rules in place.

Door to door campaigning was to be done only with five persons (including the candidate). When it came to road-shows, convoys were to be broken after every five vehicles. The interval between two sets of convoys was to be at least 30 minutes. Public meetings needed to held in large grounds where social distancing was to be observed – and Chief Election Officers in states were to supervise details in every constituency. Sanitisers, soap and water needed to be available at every gate leading to the grounds.

Anxiety is mounting now. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to address physical rallies starting 23 October. How will crowds be controlled?

The BJP has an extensive plan of using Zoom meetings, projecting the meeting on tablets, mobiles, etc so that instead of ferrying people to the meetings, the meeting is ferried to the people. In the last, Modi has frequently commented that the ground was ‘filled to the point where the eye could see and beyond’. This time, when Covid-19 lives and lurks everywhere, the PM’s message to people is likely going to be: ‘don’t come to me, I will come to you’.

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