EC’s COVID stipulations for poll agents and candidates during vote counting on May 2 raise serious doubts

EC made it mandatory for candidates and polling agents to either test negative for COVID-19 or show proof of full COVID vaccination to enter counting centres on May 2 just three days before the event

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: PTI)

Arun Srivastava

The officials of the Election Commission supervising and monitoring the Assembly elections to five states seem to be far removed from ground realities. How else could they impose their irrational and whimsical orders mandatory for candidates and their polling agents to enter into counting centres on May 2?

The EC officials have asked the election counting agents to bring with them the certificate of having received two jabs. This instruction is part of the Commission's detailed COVID protocol released on Wednesday for the counting day, when the results of the Assembly elections held in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam and Puducherry will be declared.

The EC has also made it mandatory for all candidates and their polling agents to either test negative for COVID-19 or show proof of having received both doses of COVID vaccines to enter the counting centres on May 2.

Apparently, it would give the impression that the commission has been resorting to a fair mechanism after being pulled up by the Madras High Court. But on closer look, it would make it abundantly clear that they are into some tricky game and want to shift the blame for the mess that will be created following this order on the Madras High Court.

It is a widely known fact that in most of the states, the second phase of the vaccination has just started and it was provided according to the norms and procedures laid down by the World Health Organisation and the health officials. The health department is still focussed on the elderly people. The younger people are yet to get the second jab.

It is a fact that most of the people who will man the counting tables would be in the younger age group. Besides, the actual number of counting agents taken together in all the five states would be nearly 3 lakhs. The replacement agents will have to be kept ready. If the candidate or one of the agents is infected, then a replacement will have to be sent.

The Election Commission has been emphasising for vaccination of the counting agents, but at the same time it ought to look at the ruthless politics surrounding the Centre’s vaccine strategy. It has been deliberately neglecting the needs of the states ruled by opposition parties. The worst sufferer has been West Bengal, as its chief minister mustered courage to challenge the political hegemony of the BJP and its leader Narendra Modi.

The significance of Bengal for BJP could be made out from just one small point that Modi, the Prime Minister of India, addressed nearly 18 public meetings in the state.

The obsession of Narendra Modi for winning the Bengal assembly election has been so acute that he preferred this to his prime ministerial responsibilities. Modi did not place any strategy in right order to counter the corona challenge. His vaccine policy simply reflects its complete disdain and hatred for the people.

In a situation when the government has no concrete plan of action and lacks the basic infrastructure, how could anyone imagine that all the counting staff would get vaccinated?

It also cannot be ensured that the counting agents of the Left in Kerala and of TMC in Bengal would get vaccination on priority. Already Bengal is running short of the vaccine. Only the other day the state received a fresh consignment of vaccination. It would be certainly some time to reach them to the proper centres.

The EC has issued this diktat when at least 70 per cent of the people in Bengal are yet to get the first dose of the jab. It obviously implied that EC has resorted to this move with ominous intentions.

In his eagerness to be on the right side of the political master, the former Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora had twisted the rules and procedures to help Modi and the BJP. The CEC in a planned manner subverted the election rules and procedure.

The Election Commission should have made public its policy in the beginning itself. But it made the announcement of its order just three days ahead of the counting. Obviously, this is a design to deny sufficient time to the political parties. According to the orders issued by the commission, the candidates will have to produce a COVID negative report within 48 hours (either on April 30 or by May 1) before the counting day to access the counting centres. The EC has tasked all District Election Officers to arrange for either RT-PCR or Rapid Antigen Test for the candidates and their counting agents before the day of counting.

If at all the EC was honest in its approach, it could have at least made public its order just after conclusion of election in four other states. In fact, this move of the Election Commission to wait till the last phase of elections in West Bengal gives rise to suspicion about its real intentions.

The suspicion that West Bengal has been at the focus of the EC also gets strengthened for its decision to deploy a company of central forces for Nandigram — the seat where the most prestigious battle between Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool turncoat Suvendu Adhikari — was taking place.

The central forces had played the most contentious and dubious role, which was also brought before the judiciary. People still recall how the central forces had prevented the minority voters from exercising their right in Nandigram. The situation had deteriorated to such an extent that Mamata Banerjee had to sit outside a booth for nearly three hours and also brought the matter to the knowledge of Governor Jagdip Dhankar.

Apprehensions are being expressed by the political parties that attempts would be made to subvert the counting procedure. With no one eligible to be near the counting centres, the officials may indulge in some kind of wrong play.

Nandigram has been tense since March 10, when Mamata sustained an injury in her leg. The situation turned volatile amid Trinamool’s narrative that the BJP conspired to injure her, countered by the BJP’s claims that it was an accident and she was holding the BJP responsible for sympathy. Also, ahead of polls in Nandigram on April 1, repeated clashes took place between Trinamool and BJP supporters.

On its part, the TMC has termed the Election Commission notification listing COVID protocols for counting agents as 'ill-thought out', pointing out several contradictions in the order. In a letter addressed to the poll body, the TMC has sought to know about its real intentions: 'However, the time mandated for providing such a negative report has been stated as within 48 hours of start of counting, which effectively means by May 4, 2021. Please clarify your intentions'.

It also said that while the EC has mandated candidates to submit a list of counting agents by 1700 hours on April 29, as per directions, there is a provision for replacement of such counting agent 'in case report is positive'.

“In other words, if one of the counting agents whose name has been given as per directions is found to be COVID positive, in such a case please clarify what would be the procedure and time frame for replacement of such counting agent,” it said. The TMC has urged the EC to address the concerns.

(IPA Service)

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