India voting West Bengal 20190411
Voters line up to cast their votes outside a polling station during elections in Alipurduar district, West Bengal Image Credit: Reuters

India is passing through the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Though the peak is yet to come, the fury has already stunned the world. The blame game has started over the callous and pathetic unpreparedness of the agencies in meeting the crisis while the lack of oxygen is taking scores of lives.

Some blame the hubris of the government, some others blame the traditions of religious festivals like Holi and Kumbha, and some the lack of human capital among Indians. These discussions and debates over fixing responsibilities are less based on facts and figures, more on ideology and emotions.

However, while India has become the Covid capital of the world, the country is at the same time busy in the assembly elections in four of its states and one union territory: Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. Four of these provinces have already cast their votes, but the voting will continue till April 29 in West Bengal, which has a population of over 100 million.

Huge public meetings and long roadshows have taken place in all these states during the election campaign. However, most of these super-spreader political dramas continue to be enacted in the politically crucial state, West Bengal, which India’s ruling party BJP desperately wants to win.

India Oxygen
A worker refills medical oxygen cylinders at a charging station on the outskirts of Prayagraj, India, Friday, April 23, 2021 Image Credit: AP

Triple mutation of coronavirus

Political leaders in their quest for power have no regard for people’s safety and survival as the scientists have already found the highly dangerous indigenous triple mutation of coronavirus (B. 1.618) in West Bengal, to which some have started naming ‘Bengal Strain.’

The ongoing election may bring BJP to power in West Bengal, but it will most likely make the pandemic more devastating for the state and its people. Though there is denial by leaders that big rallies have not contributed to the spread of the virus in the last month of campaigning in the state, Covid cases have doubled even though it is one of the least tested states in India.

Thus, the question arises: Do developing countries need to engage in elections while struggling against an unprecedented pandemic, which is deadly and highly infectious?

In recent years, the world has also experienced other pandemics like HIV/AIDS. Though HIV/AIDS pandemic is neither as contagious nor global as Covid-19, there are some concrete experiences one could have drawn from the impacts of HIV/AIDS on the elections and electoral politics of Southern Africa.

Despite the fear of virus

The HIV/AIDS pandemic had also led to increased bogus voting in the elections in Southern African countries. In India, despite the fear of the coronavirus, the official voter turnout in the ongoing election has not been affected, unlike in the local elections in countries like France.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has made it very likely for increased bogus voting in India as many voters are afraid to come to the polling station. The identity checks of voters with masks have also become problematic.

Covid-19 has resulted in the deaths of many elected politicians in different parts of the world, including India. India has already lost a former President, four former Chief Ministers, and several lawmakers to the Covid.

Holding elections at the time of the Covid pandemic makes the politicians more likely to be exposed to coronavirus. Since February 2020, at least 78 countries and territories worldwide have decided to postpone their national and subnational elections. But India has not.

In October 2020, it went on to hold the elections in the state of Bihar. The Election Commission refused to listen to opposition parties’ demand to postpone the election. It took South Korea’s example, which had held its national elections in April 2020.

True that South Korea had the national election during the pandemic. In South Korea, politicians did not hold large election meetings, and voters, while voting, wore masks, kept at least one meter of distance, disinfected their hands, and wore plastic gloves.

A post-election peak

That was not the case in Bihar. Though many leaders, including Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister, Sushil Kumar Modi, and BJP in-charge of Bihar polls, Devendra Fadnavis tested positive for Covid-19, the state miraculously managed to escape a post-election peak, and no one knows how.

However, it is very unwise to expect that miracle again while going ahead with elections in several Indian states while the country is still under the grip of the pandemic.

The US also held its elections in November 2020, but the rallies were done virtually, conventions were called off, debates took place with a maximum of 100 people, and a record number of ballots were sent by post. Still, President Trump was hospitalised with Covid, and the infections surged in many battleground states.

The kind of preventive measures that the US and its politicians had taken during the election were not expected in the Indian context. But that didn’t stop the Election Commission from holding elections in all these states. It also continued the election process for so long, particularly in West Bengal.

The political leaders were blatantly oblivious to the danger they brought to the people and held large political gatherings. Moreover, at least four candidates contesting the election in West Bengal, one candidate in Tamil Nadu, and one candidate in a by-election in Odisha have already perished due to Covid. Several have tested positive and are in hospital.

India, holding elections in the middle of a raging pandemic, prioritised politics, not public health and safety. The Election Commission has not even tried to learn from the experiences of other countries in holding elections during a pandemic in taking preventive measures.

On May 2, when the counting of votes will take place, it is not so crucial for a country which party wins or loses in these state elections. However, the way the elections have been managed and political leaders have conducted themselves will pose a big question mark.

At the same time, and more worryingly, it might significantly worsen the Covid crisis and make it more difficult for India to overcome the raging pandemic.