Amid criticism that it did not enforce steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 during the protracted campaign for Assembly elections in four States and one Union Territory with sufficient vigour, the Election Commission of India has now banned victory processions after the results are declared on May 2. It has also restricted to two the number of persons who can accompany the winning candidate to meet the Returning Officer and collect the election certificate. These are significant steps to prevent any escalation in the already alarming infection rate. Further, the ECI has come up with measures at counting centres, including a stipulation that agents cannot enter the counting hall without producing either a negative test report for COVID-19 or final vaccination reports. While such stringent norms are welcome, it is regrettable that the enforcement of earlier norms for COVID-appropriate behaviour by political parties, candidates and their supporters was often quite lax during the long campaign. The Madras High Court’s remark to the effect that ECI officials should bear a great responsibility for the horrific spike in infections, illness, hospitalisation and deaths will resonate with the public. While it was quite in order that the court voiced its displeasure with the ECI for failing to make all parties adhere to its norms, the suggestion by the Bench that ECI officials should bear sole responsibility for the situation was avoidable, bordering on the intemperate. However, the court’s caution that the counting process should not become a catalyst for a new surge has undoubtedly helped and led to new norms for counting day activities.
As the election draws to a close, the time may have come for the ECI to reconsider its resort to multi-phase polling as a permanent practice. Granted, some States are prone to violence, but should it not reconsider the practice, taking into account the strides made in communications and logistics? Multi-phase voting has been defended for the last three decades as something necessary because of the time needed to move central forces to different parts of the country; security and sensitivity in select constituencies are also considerations. However, in the present round, the first three phases of the West Bengal elections were held alongside those of Assam, and polling in the three other States and Puducherry was completed on April 6. With only one State left, there was a good case for fulfilling logistical requirements within a week or so and getting the remaining polling work done in one or two phases by April 15. A prolonged campaign contributes to build-up of tension. Covering an entire State in as few phases as possible will help localise the potential for violence, prevent the spread of tension due to the virulence of the campaign, besides reducing the fatigue of forces deployed throughout the campaign, up to the day of counting. A shorter election may be a safer one too.