While it is easy to blame our governments at a time of crisis like we are facing now, what often gets missed is the background maneuvering in our complicated and messy democracy.
The UP Panchayat polls which started on 15 April and are concluding tomorrow have become a medium of Covid-19 spread in the state. But since there were no images and videos of mass rallies attended by the PM and HM like those flashed by media from the ongoing WB assembly elections, the UP Panchayat elections have gone under the radar.
Now, after the death of 135 teachers and other poll workers assigned to conduct these elections, the Allahabad HC has issued notice to Uttar Pradesh State Election Commission (UPSEC), seeking an explanation on ‘why it failed to check non-compliance of Covid guidelines during multiple phases of panchayat elections’.
A division bench comprising Justice Siddhartha Varma and Justice Ajit Kumar said, “It appears that neither police nor the State Election Commission did anything to save people on election duty from getting infected by the virus”. The bench warned the UP SEC to “take immediate measures in remaining phases of panchayat elections to ensure Covid guidelines are complied with, else action would be taken against officials involved in the election process.”
The judges further added: “It’s an open secret that the government had gone complacent due to weakening of the virus by 2020-end and got involved in other activities, including panchayat elections. Had it been vigilant, it would have prepared itself to face the onslaught of the second wave.”
It is pertinent to note that the same two judges had recently ordered the UP government to do a full lockdown in 5 cities of UP, lambasting the government for not having any ‘concrete plan’ to combat the pandemic, and for ‘harping upon economy, economy all the time’. Clearly, the lordships are not impressed with the Yogi Adityanath govt., its popularity among UP’s citizens not withstanding (BJP-led NDA won a record-breaking three-fourths majority of 325 seats out of 403 in the 2017 election). UP govt rejected their diktat and approached the SC which stayed the HC order.
Now, let’s examine the HC bench’s allegation that the government ‘got involved in other activities, including panchayat elections.’
A 5 Feb report in NDTV (the Bible for all left-liberals) tells us that it was actually the Allahabad High Court which insisted that the village panchayat elections be held by April 30! The elections were due in December last year, but the pandemic led to delay in reorganization and delimitation of panchayats, and the Yogi Adityanath government wanted the elections to be postponed.
However, as is often the case in our PIL-happy nation, a former village pradhan Vinod Upadhyay approached the HC seeking directions to the state poll panel to issue notifications for holding the panchayat election in accordance as per the provisions of Article 243-E of Constitution. The HC said, “As per the mandate of the Constitution, the election of the Panchayat should have been held on or before January 13, 2021.” It then directed the SEC to ensure holding of the village panchayat elections by April 30 this year.
Accordingly, on 26 March, the UP SEC announced the 4-phase polling starting from 15 April. The pandemic second wave in the state became clear on 8 April when the daily cases crossed the peak of the first wave. And one can berate the poll panel all they want, but no one can ensure adherence to Covid-19 protocols like social distancing when people are campaigning in the interiors of a state. The second wave is being caused by more infectious variants of the virus and while wearing a mask affords protection, they are not fail-safe. Especially when poll workers have to spend long hours in polling booths with hundreds of voters streaming by.
If only the High Court had listened to the Government and agreed to delay the election, could some of these tragic deaths have been avoided? Could the UP SEC and/or government have approached the HC in the week before the first phase of polling on 15 April to request the elections be deferred, by which time it was clear that the second wave was upon us? But did they fear another rebuke by the courts over their failure to ‘uphold the Constitutional mandate’? But then again, couldn’t the HC have taken suo-motu notice of the situation and themselves ordered the elections to be deferred?
Hindsight is 20-20, but at this moment of crisis, it does not behoove the HC to behave as if it was not a party to the conduct of UP panchayat elections during a pandemic. For the HC to blame the government for ‘getting involved in other activities like Panchayat elections’ reeks of hypocrisy. The judiciary should abstain from riding roughshod over elected governments and other institutions like SEC. That path is fraught with danger and is not conducive to the overall health of our democracy.
(With IANS inputs)