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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 32, New Delhi, July 25, 2020

Memorandum from Political Parties to the India’s Election Commission opposing the digital poll campaign in 2020 Bihar legislative assembly election

Friday 24 July 2020

[Text of the memorandum submitted by CPI and eight other political parties - INC, RJD, CPI (M), CPI(ML), RLSP, VIP, HAM, LJD - to the Election Commission opposing the digital poll campaign. (received on 18 July 2020)]

To,

The Chief Election Commissioner,

Subject: Ensuring substantial public participation and providing equal opportunity to all opposition parties in 2020 Bihar legislative assembly election

Dear Sir,

We write to you today to draw your attention to the emergent health crisis which has engulfed Bihar and the public health situation in the state which continues to be critical. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the state adversely and the rate of infection is on upward incline. The capital city, Patna with as many as 89 containment zones and over 16 districts have been put under lockdown for another fifteen days with effect from 16th July. With alarming exponential surge and more than 22,000 detected cases (while writing this) spread over the entire length and breadth of the state, intermittent lockdowns are quite inevitable. The instances of infections, public health experts suspect, may be much more than the reported figures as testing is still not as intensive as it should be. It is safe to assume that there are many more infected people who are either asymptomatic or have not yet been tested in the state, making their public movement a risk for others around them. It is also projected that infection would cross million in Bihar by the tentative election schedules in October-November.

While the people of Bihar are eagerly waiting for the elections to get rid of a government formed against the mandate as well as for dismal failure on all fronts and has been exposed particularly during the crisis caused by the pandemic. However, there are questions in peoples’ minds.The state has a population of around 13 crore with 7.5 crore voters, how does the Election Commission plan to ensure physical distancing of at least two yards recommended by the WHO and ICMR, repeatedly advocated by the Prime Minister himself. People need explicit clarity so that wholesome participation of majority of voters is not adversely impacted. People also expect the commission to ensure and satisfy the people that entire poll exercise does not become a super spreader event. We hope you must be aware that during the course of the training of electronic voting machine i.e. EVM a teacher Kailash Jha Kinkar, became infected in Khagaria, Bihar and subsequently died on Monday. Besides, more than ten people got infected while they were engaged in carrying EVMs in Begusarai.

In the All Party Meeting convened recently by the Chief Election Commissioner, the ruling parties pushed their proposal regarding virtual election campaigns through digital media and prohibiting traditional election campaign methods. According to TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) only a little over half the population has a mobile phone. Only 34 percent have a smartphone. It will be a travesty of unpardonable proportion to officially legitimize a mode of election campaign which is not only severely limited by its reach but exclusionary by its design. Almost two thirds of the electorate will be left out of the process. Uncaring about this the parties in power have kick started their virtual blitzkrieg while the Election Commission is yet to fix the limit of expenditure of this virtual political campaign.

Keeping in view the issues and concerns of people raised above, the Election Commission shall have to engage with question relating to fears of whether elections held in such a manner that fails to ensure free and equal participation of the voters under the pandemic circumstances can be considered free and fair.

Because of no physical campaigning, citizen’s Right to know shall also be impacted. We must also not forget that Right to health of a voter is part of the right to life under Article 21.

Indian electoral system derives its strength and legitimacy through the institutional mechanisms of the election commission to provide a level playing field for political parties and candidates. To ignore these mechanisms and conduct the elections as a mere formality to be finished anyhow would be antithetical to the very purpose of the elections and a travesty of the democratic processes. And as it is apprehended a possible Low voter turnout will have an impact on the idea of deepening of democracy. Let us remember that democracy is part of the basic structure of our constitution and it has to be wholesome and not merely a ritual.

It is in this context that we urge upon your esteemed office to take a proactive approach to priorities the health and well-being of the people of Bihar as well as of the spirit of democracy and evolve a mechanism which protects the health of the democracy as well as the health of the people.

We request you to review and reassess the situation, in consultation with public health experts and other stakeholders, keeping in mind the rapidly worsening situation. We request you to take an informed decision at the earliest which accords due importance to people’s health and lives and does not compromise on the sanctity of the democratic representation.

Thanks & Regards,

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