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‘Free, fair and safe’ as the election motto

“Though there is light at the end of the tunnel, the road ahead is still dark and long.” — Soumya Swaminathan.

Truer words than those of the Chief Scientist, World Health Organisation, have not been spoken in a long while. They remind me of Saint Cardinal Newman’s great hymn “Lead, Kindly Light” (1833) in which he says: The night is dark and I am far from home,/Lead Thou me on…./O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till/The night is gone;....”

If the novel coronavirus can mutate on the British Isles, it can do so anywhere, any time. In fact it will be a wonder if it does not. And so, whatever we do individually or collectively, we should know that we do so standing on a razor’s edge.

The holding of elections is high on the list of that precarious condition.

Essence of democracy

Overlapping with the pandemic, elections have been held across the globe. From the United States to South Korea, straddling India, they have brought massive numbers of people out of lockdowns, isolation and, above all, fear of getting infected and of infecting others, to vote. This calculated risk-taking is part of the ‘moor and fen, crag and torrent’ of our times. It has made the journey hard both in the fight against the virus and in the battle for saving democracy in a world where autocracy is at ease with restriction, democracy uneasy in ‘containment’.

Comment | Conducting elections during a pandemic

Millions have voted in no less than 34 countries since the pandemic broke, to reaffirm their faith in the life-breath of democracy — elections. They have shown that fear of endangering one’s health, one’s very life, is not going to come in the way of exercising political rights, political choice. In other words, millions have shown on continent after continent that life is to be protected but that a life without liberty is not a life worth protecting. Equally, that a life with liberty will be pure theory if a virus of the kind we are gripped by has placed ‘life’ itself in peril. One has to be free in order to breathe, one has to breathe in order to be free.

So, it becomes crucial that as and when elections are announced anywhere they are conducted with zeal and — re-doubled care as to the virus’s challenge.

Also read | Singapore shows how to conduct elections during pandemic

Elements that matter

There are three players in an election — we the electors, the grid of candidates and the election-making machinery. The three, together, make an election. So also in a pandemic, there are three players — we the protection-needing public, the grid of health care, and the health-policymaking state. If voters are apathetic or un-vigilant, their will can be hijacked, distorted and even made comatose. So also in a vicious pandemic, if the affected public is callous, inattentive to the hazards involved, it can forfeit its discriminating and decision-making prerogatives. The health-care system can then become the non-consultative prerogative of the state.

When the two — election and infection — coincide, the citizenry has to exercise its franchise with a commitment to political freedom and a compliance with pandemic fetters — an unavoidable contradiction.

The Hindu In Focus podcast | Bihar polls — covering an election during a pandemic

But, to adapt a part of Dr. Swaminathan’s words, there is a light in the middle of this tunnel. The elections just concluded in Bihar show us that India can handle that contradiction. The Election Commission of India (ECI) was faced with an existential issue: Should elections be held in a pandemic? Suggestions were not wanting that the Bihar elections be put off — a democratically regressive idea. Fortunately, the ECI did neither stop its mandate nor lose its perspective.

A former Chief Election Commissioner, S.Y. Quraishi, has pointed out in his article, Bihar can be a leading example of how to successfully conduct a poll in difficult times of November 12, 2020 (Indian Express): “To leave nothing to chance, the ECI consulted its counterparts in several countries and asked them to share their experiences before deciding to overrule all objections and go ahead with the elections....” The ECI put in place a protocol in Bihar that kept the ballots moving and the virus held in check.

Comment | Polls during a pandemic

The forthcoming elections

With the appearance of a variant of the virus in Britain, plans and prognoses have to be reappraised. Who can tell when and how hard the new variant or others of that kind will occur elsewhere and in India? As the ECI begins preparing for the polls to legislatures in Kerala (140 seats), Tamil Nadu (234), Puducherry (30), West Bengal (294) and Assam (126), it does so in a pall of uncertainty. But if elections do take place as per plan it is imperative that the ECI factors the virus into every step in the preparations and advises everyone concerned, including the voting public to wear masks when not indoors at home from right now.

It will have to pay equal attention to both — the election and the infection.

Our Constitution, no less, requires that. Its Article 21, famously described by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer as ‘the procedural magna carta protective of life and liberty’ has been elaborated upon in pronouncements of the Supreme Court of India, notably in Sunil Batra vs. Delhi Administration, where it held that the “right to life” included the right to lead a healthy life.

Also read | Kuwait holds election amid virus challenge

Not extra goodwill but a duty

When an individual’s participation in a public activity, arranged by the state, supervised and administered by a body set up under the Constitution, is likely to expose that person to a health hazard, it becomes the constitutional duty of the state to reduce the risks of that hazard to as near zero as possible. Steps taken by the state and the ECI to protect voters in the arena of voting are not an ‘extra’ act of goodwill but a duty performed towards a constitutional entitlement of the people. Just as the state would need to give protection to election personnel and to electors against any threat from miscreants, criminals and terrorists, so it is bound to protect them against an epidemic.

The number of registered voters in the four States and Puducherry totals 177,450,325 or, around 180 million. The number of polling stations involved in the upcoming elections is 186,976. If we were to multiply the number of officials on election duty and security personnel per station, the figure of human beings exposing themselves to the risk of getting and spreading infection through this exercise of franchise would be immense. But, as I said, the ECI in Bihar has shown the way, reducing the numbers of voters per booth, increasing the number of booths, thermal testing each and every voter. And there has been the salutary step of postal votes being made available to senior voters above the age of 80.

Also read | ECI takes note of how South Korea held polls amid coronavirus outbreak

Take these steps

But more steps need to be taken. I will set out three: One, personnel scheduled to be drafted for election duty, and the number of security staff slated to be deployed should be identified as a priority category for access to vaccination. It would be their fundamental right , as much as that of the Defence Forces, to be protected by vaccines on a priority.

Two, every voter entering a booth has to be wearing a mask, not as a desirability but as a desideratum like a voter identity card. If not wearing one, he or she should be asked to go back and return wearing one.

Three, senior voters should be advised and enabled to vote in the first three hours of the voting using a separate queue-lane.

‘Free, fair and safe’ should be the motto for the forthcoming elections, assuming they will take place — a big and ardent assumption, post the rising of the new variant in Britain.

Elections held in a terror zone are secured against violence. So must elections in a pandemic be rescued from the virus so as to save not just one series of balloting, but democracy itself. The un-democratic temper and emergencies twirl one into the other. Not allowing the virus emergency an ‘election surge’ would be a victory for democracy as much as for public health.

When the ‘long and dark tunnel’ ends in a blaze of light we must be voting free and breathing free.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 9:31:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/free-fair-and-safe-as-the-election-motto/article33405433.ece

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