The countrywide JEE-NEET exams that finally got under way is yet another litmus test for Bihar, which is grappling with a raging pandemic and ravaging floods. These exams of course do not match up to the magnitude and complexity that the assembly election due in October-November, poses for the state, with an electorate of over 70 million, larger than that of several countries.
Positive cases in Bihar, at about 148,000, doubled in August. The overstay of Covid-19 has yielded a good number of other dilemmas as well — whether to open educational institutions, resume national and international flights, and commence metro services. Others like social gatherings and celebrations can wait. Periodic election, the sustaining machine of India’s democracy, is its own category.
The lingering debate about the virtual versus the physical campaign in Bihar is not unexpected. Virtual campaign is Covid safe but would always remain a relatively porous case in terms of enforcement of MCC (model code of conduct) and election expenditure.
Physical campaign, on the contrary, is considered more equal, more conveniently traceable and accountable, but surely not congenial to Covid protocols. Certain political parties are wary of the affordability factor in digital outreach and plead that this could affect the level playing field.
Access and equality issues in digital carriages are a reality. In tele-density, internet penetration or even exposure to television media, Bihar is no front runner. But it is not for the first time that political parties with higher resources would hold a campaign advantage, Covid or no Covid.
A more realistic approach will be to look at the elections the same way as we look at work from home, online education, home-based examinations, travel in air bubbles— all born out of necessity. It is significant to note that the Election Commission’s broad guidelines underline a systematic Covid response for any elections, though these set the special stage for Bihar polls.
While election operations in the field have always required oversight by nodal officers in a range of critical areas such as security, electronic voting machines (EVMs) and expenditure, a nodal health officer will be the new actor to help beat the Covid threat to the electoral process.
Health advisories and disaster management regulations will have a large say. Sanitisers, soaps, masks, temperature check and distancing are being plentily added to the list of election material and preparations.
The number of voters at a polling station already stands reduced to a maximum of 1,000 from the usual 1,500 and every voter will indeed wear a glove while pressing the button of EVM.
Good news for the election classicist is that door-to-door campaign, road shows, public gatherings and rallies are still allowed, but with accentuated restriction and supervision so that there is no slip-up on corona.
Election Commission’s iconic SVEEP programme that altered voters’ participation scene in recent years, might engage largely in ensuring the behaviour of safe arrival and safe exit by voters.
Perhaps the boldest intervention that reinforces the Election Commission’s avowed inclusion mission — no voter to be left behind — is to allow the quarantined Covid-19 patients to cast their votes at the last hour of the poll day, besides the facility of postal ballot for those already in home or institutional quarantine for being positive or suspects.
This carries the dare of taking the battle into the enemy camp. Political parties that had earlier taken up strong positions against polls are now seen adjusting to the eventuality of timely elections.
Their tentativeness has been understandable as it is born out of a cocktail of political aspirations and conditions created by Covid-19. Around the world, national and sub-national elections have been significantly disrupted by the pandemic, with many countries deciding to play it safe.
Some like South Korea and Singapore have valiantly gone ahead with theirs. The complexities of a Bihar election do not provide the luxury of any easy or blanket replication.
The Pataliputra empire has been the cradle of political and governance experiments in ancient as well as contemporary times; hopefully it pioneers the best practices of a corona election.
(The writer is former director general, Election Commission of India Odisha)