The Madras High Court on Monday expressed its displeasure with the Election Commission of India (ECI) for having failed to ensure that political parties adhered to the COVID-19 protocol during the recent Assembly election campaign in Tamil Nadu. It warned the Commission that the counting of votes, scheduled for May 2, would be postponed if appropriate safety measures are not put in place and the court informed of the same by April 30.
The First Division Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy said that though polling was, by and large, peaceful in Tamil Nadu, the ECI couldn’t ensure that political parties adhered to the COVID-19 protocol during the campaign, despite repeated observations made by the court, “like a broken record”, in almost every order passed on an election-related case, stressing the need to follow the norms.
“The significance of adhering to such protocol may have been lost on the Election Commission, going by its silence as campaigning and rallies were conducted without distancing norms being maintained, and in wanton disregard for other requirements of the protocol,” the judges observed.
They said the ECI ought to have come up with strict safety measures at least for the counting of the votes. “At no cost should the counting result in a catalyst for a further surge, politics or no politics, and [irrespective of] whether the counting takes place in a staggered manner or is deferred. Public health is of paramount importance, and it is distressing that constitutional authorities have to be reminded in such regard. It is only when the citizen survives that he enjoys the other rights that this democratic republic guarantees unto him. The situation is now one of survival and protection, and everything else comes thereafter,” the Bench said.
The observations were made during the hearing of a petition by Transport Minister M.R. Vijayabhaskar for following certain regulations while counting the votes in Karur constituency, from where he contested.
However, the judges expanded the scope of the case by stating: “The petition pertains to the counting of votes at a solitary Assembly constituency, but the larger picture cannot be missed.”
The judges directed the ECI and the Chief Electoral Officer to hold discussions with the State Health Secretary and come up with comprehensive guidelines on regular sanitisation of the counting centres and ensuring hygienic conditions. Guidelines on the wearing of masks and distancing among counting agents, officials and others should also be finalised and informed to the court, they added.