By Sujit Bhar
As news of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s younger brother Ashim Banerjee’s death due to Covid-19 spread across the state, it was suddenly clear how much the recent elections and other religious festivities around the country (including Maha Kumbh, brought forward by a year) have affected the fragile health infrastructure of the state. Nobody is safe anymore.
Mamata had managed the first wave brilliantly, working hard to keep generally boundless curiosity of Bengalis in check, while imposing a mild lockdown. But the second wave, with the new, improved, mutated and more devastating virus wreaking havoc, the grief-stricken Chief Minister has again announced a total lockdown for two weeks. This is likely to be extended.
Ashim Banerjee, who was being treated at one of Kolkata’s best medical facilities, the Medica Superspecialty Hospital on the eastern fringes of the city, passed away on Saturday. And soon after, the scary figures were released to the public – the state recorded its highest single-day spike of 20,846 fresh Covid-19 cases. The overall tally is 10,94,802, with a total of 12,993 deaths. This is an update till Friday, so does not include Ashim’s death.
This was not entirely unexpected. The Election Commission of India (ECI) may remain stubborn and refuse to accept any responsibility for it, but if it had wanted people to believe that an eight-phase election process, plumb in the middle of a mind-numbing pandemic was “safe”, then it was lying to itself, lying to the people it is supposed to serve and possibly lying to the court as well. If the ECI believes, and wants others to believe, that it has no accountability at all, just because it has a constitutional mandate to conduct elections come what may, then it is high time it is taken to task. If not in the range of what Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee commented – should probably be charged with “murder” – then surely something similarly stringent.
If the ECI believes, and wants others to believe, that it has no accountability at all, just because it has a constitutional mandate to conduct elections come what may, then it is high time it is taken to task.
Equally responsible are the political parties that gave in to the circus, but now that a death has entered the first family of the state, there is reason to understand the limits of authority of a constitutional authority.
The ECI was envisaged by Article 324 of the Constitution of India. It defines the code of conduct for the election model in the country. The Constitution under Article 324 provides for the planning, conduct, and supervision for elections to the Legislature, the State Governments, and the President and Vice-President offices by the Election Commission.
It is also responsible for preparing, maintaining and updating the electoral rolls, raising political funds, registration of political parties, the nomination of candidates, monitoring of campaigns, accelerating media, arranging and organizing polling booths, superintending the vote counting and result declaration.
One has to understand that the role of the ECI under very special circumstances, such as a war or a massive natural calamity or a pandemic has not been defined. War is something pretty alien to India. Despite three full-scale wars and more scuffles that are near the definition of war, peace is an option that Indians enjoy, though not within its own borders.
As of a natural calamity or a pandemic, the ECI has known to be somewhat impervious to the needs of the people. The Bihar elections were held in a state of flood, and had the accountability of the ECI been defined, it could have been sued in court. However, the ECI can determine action in matters of elections where the law is ambiguous. And its actions can be challenged in courts of law.
This is one section of freedom that the ECI should have exercised in putting its foot down about holding elections within such deadly confines of a pandemic. The Constitution mandates it with holding free and fair elections, but that inherently does not mean that another condition, “safe”, is not needed to be looked into. If the ECI refused to realize what constitutes general public safety, it is probably in violation of Article 21 (right to life, a fundamental right) of the Constitution.
That is amplified in the ECI’s coercing millions or workers in the election process for long periods, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives. 700 teachers have lost their lives in the UP panchayat elections for no fault of theirs, just because the ECI stubbornly decided to hold the elections under such conditions. The case had gone to court, and the ECI had promised before the court that elections would be held safely. That promise has been broken. One believes a contempt petition is in order now.
As for West Bengal, the same principle of stubbornness and a false sense of importance engulfed the ECI. Common sense says that this was foolhardy, to say the least, and criminal negligence, to be precise.
It is also time that the functions and obligations of this organization are clearly spelt out, so it can be hauled up for such future acts of criminal negligence, which it is wont to perform in future.