The Madras high court on Monday held the Election Commission of India (ECI) “singularly responsible” for the surge in coronavirus cases across the country, saying it allowed massive political rallies where leaders and masses flouted all covid-19 protocols.
A bench of chief justice Sanjib Banerjee and justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy warned ECI that the court could even stall the counting of votes on 2 May unless it produced a blueprint on 30 April on covid protocol at counting centres. “At no cost can counting result as a catalyst for a further surge, politics or no politics, whether the counting takes place in a staggered manner or is deferred,” the court said.
During the hearing, the bench observed sharply that EC officials should probably be tried on murder charges for allowing the rallies, but the written order released later dropped this part, toning down the observations.
The HC was hearing a writ petition filed by Tamil Nadu transport minister M.R. Vijayabhaskar seeking a direction for safety measures and fairness during vote counting in Karur constituency from where he is contesting.
Officials familiar with the functioning of ECI said that the poll watchdog told the high court that according to the covid-19 rules notified under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) has the responsibility to ensure rules are followed. “Commission has always emphasised in its 21.8.2020 and all subsequent instructions that the state authorities shall ensure covid compliance in the matter of public gatherings, etc., for campaign purposes. At no occasion, the commission takes over the task of SDMA for enforcement of covid-19 instructions,” it told the high court, according to officials who did not want to be named.
The commission has issued frequent guidelines on the importance of these protocols, but has yet to act when they were openly flouted. ECI has also come under fire for staggering the West Bengal assembly elections across eight phases and refusing to combine the later phases even after it became clear that India was facing a serious health crisis.
“When campaigning was ongoing in Tamil Nadu, we did not have so many cases and polling also ended before cases began to rise,” said Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) spokesperson A. Saravanan. “Perhaps ECI could have imposed certain curbs. Except for the Bharatiya Janata Party, all parties in Bengal asked for the last phases to be clubbed. Until Modi cancelled his rallies, ECI didn’t bring in restrictions, and by then, cases had exponentially risen.”
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee welcomed the Madras high court observations, “which clearly said ECI cannot escape its responsibility”. “Both Prime Minister Modi and EC are responsible for the (current) situation (of covid spreading in the state),” Banerjee said.
“You are the only institution that is singularly responsible for the situation today,” the chief justice said. “No action against political parties taking rallies despite court orders. Your election commission officials should be put up on murder charges probably.”
The court directed ECI to file a blueprint after a detailed consultation with the state health secretary. Polls were held in four states—Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, West Bengal—and the Union territory of Puducherry.