Election rallies and road shows in Bengal have come under the scrutiny of the judiciary and health experts, who have warned that these mass gatherings will become ‘super spreaders’ of the dreaded Covid-19 virus at a time when the second wave of the pandemic has hit the country.
The Calcutta High Court asked state and election authorities on Tuesday (13 April) to ensure that Covid protocols and guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India (ECI) be followed strictly by all.
Following this, the Election Commission has convened a meeting with representatives of all political parties in Kolkata today (16 April). The meeting is expected to deliberate on measures that can be adopted to ensure adherence to Covid protocols.
But even after the order by the Calcutta High Court division bench headed by Chief Justice T B N Radhakrishnan, most politicians cutting across party lines were seen campaigning in complete violation of all Covid protocols.
It is here that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially its senior leaders, should have set an example. Except for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi who is very particular about wearing a mask at all times, none of the other leaders have displayed similar respect for the basic Covid-safety norms.
Not only the state leadership, the central leadership of the party (except Modi) has been guilty of being seen in public without masks and mixing nonchalantly with people.
As soon as the second wave of the pandemic started and the situation started going from bad to worse, the BJP leadership should have decided to follow Covid-safety norms very strictly.
While it is impossible to maintain physical distancing norms in rallies and road shows, the least the BJP leaders and functionaries could have done is set an example to all others by wearing masks properly.
There is no reason why BJP volunteers could not have distributed face masks for free at rallies and road shows.
And at rallies and other gatherings, they could have gone around with aerosols of hand sanitisers to be sprayed on the hands of all assembled there.
For a party with huge resources, procuring face masks in bulk and distributing them for free at election rallies and other gatherings should not have been a problem at all.
In fact, the BJP could have asked the ECI to exempt the costs of these masks from the election expenditure of candidates or the party. Given the nature of this expenditure and public interest involved, the ECI would, in all probability, also have granted this exemption.
Prime Minister Modi commands a huge fan following and his instructions and requests are generally adhered to by the masses across the country.
Asking all those gathered at the many rallies he has addressed across Bengal so far to wear masks properly, wash their hands frequently and take precautions would have sent a powerful message across the country.
Though Modi has always worn a mask (except when he speaks), few of the other party leaders who appear on stage with him at his rallies have been seen wearing masks.
He ought to have issued clear instructions that all BJP leaders and functionaries should wear masks properly at all times in public.
Even after Tuesday’s High Court ruling, leaders and candidates of the BJP (and all other parties as well) have been seen in meetings, road shows and public outreach programmes without masks and in blatant violation of Covid-safety protocols.
Had the BJP leadership displayed the sagacity in asking everyone at the rallies they address or during their road shows and public interactions to wear masks properly, wash their hands frequently and maintain physical distancing as far as possible, other parties would have been forced to follow suit.
The BJP, being the prime contender for power in Bengal and considering its status as the largest party by far in the country, has a special responsibility in setting standards and leading by example.
Thus, it would have earned the BJP a lot of brownie points as well as admiration from Bengal’s electorate if it would have been proactive in ensuring adherence to safety protocols and if its leaders had set personal examples by wearing masks properly at all times and also asking the public to do the same.
On Tuesday, the High Court had directed all district magistrates and the Election Commission to ensure that all Covid-related guidelines should be followed in the strictest possible manner by candidates and parties during their campaigns.
The division bench also observed: “We are dealing with an extraordinary situation and this calls for extraordinary measures”.
The Court directed the authorities to act in a stringent manner against persons who fail to adhere to, neglect or refuse to obey Covid protocols.
“Callous, irresponsible and nonchalant attitude or behaviour of some of the members of the society cannot be permitted to endanger the lives of the other members of the society,” the court noted.
The court further directed that wearing masks should be mandatory in all gatherings, availability of sanitisers must be ensured and safe distancing norms should be followed.
“We request the members of all political parties and all candidates who are contesting the assembly elections and who hold meetings and travel across the state for campaigning purpose, to ensure that at every gathering all persons present wear masks and maintain the safe distancing norms,” the division bench directed.
If the court’s directives are to be followed strictly, there is no way that rallies or meetings can be held. There is no way that ‘safe distancing’ norms can be adhered to at rallies and road shows.
If the Election Commission, at today’s meeting, asks parties and candidates to desist from holding rallies and other public gatherings, the parties and politicians will have only themselves to blame for bringing things to such a pass.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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