EC imposes host of restrictions, no rallies till Jan 15

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New Delhi

The Election Commission on Saturday said no political rallies, roadshows or street corner meets will be allowed till January 15, as it announced the poll schedule for five states and clamped restrictions to check the spread of Covid-19 during the high-stakes political battle.

Political parties must focus on virtual rallies rather than large in-person gatherings, the Election Commission, headed by Sushil Chandra, said. “The decision has been taken after much deliberation with all stakeholders,” Chandra said as he announced the election dates on Saturday.

“No roadshow, pad-yatra, cycle, bike, vehicle rally and procession shall be allowed till January 15. The commission shall subsequently review the situation and issue further instructions accordingly,” the poll watchdog said in its advisory.

A call on the political gatherings will be taken after January 15 depending on the dynamic situation of the pandemic’s third national wave, Chandra said. He said the duration of polling will be extended by an hour amid the Covid restrictions.

The elections for five assemblies in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur will be held in seven phases from February 10. The results will be declared on March 10.

Other containment measures include curbs on the number of vehicles accompanying a candidate for the submission of nomination, which will be restricted to two instead of five. The chambers of returning officers should have sufficient space to perform the functions of nomination, scrutiny and symbol allocation following social distancing norms, the commission said.

It has allowed only 1,250 voters in each polling station instead of the usual 1,500. The number was capped at 1,000 for the previous two rounds of state elections. There will be mandatory sanitisation of polling stations and thermal checking of all those casting their vote.

The commission is also running a pilot project to live-track overcrowding of voters at various poll booths to ensure safety norms are followed.

Covid patients and those who are quarantined will be allowed to cast their vote in the last hour of polling under the supervision of health authorities, the commission said. Sector magistrates will coordinate this in their allocated polling stations and record of such electors shall be maintained by the presiding officer, it said.

All electoral offences will be brought to the fore and not just Covid-related offences, Chandra said. Although there is no reason to panic, abundant caution should be maintained, he said. “Ultimately, it is the voter that has to be safe.”

All violations will be dealt with by the chief secretary or the chief of the state disaster management authority of the concerned state, he added.

The election body has issued Covid-19 directions to all states, including writing to chief secretaries to expedite vaccination; increasing the number of polling stations; and reducing the number of people who will vote in each booth.

Last year, the commission courted controversy throughout the eight-phase West Bengal election, beginning with the prolonged duration of polls to not conceding to the Opposition’s demands to club the last three phases in view of the alarming rise in Covid-19 cases. A police complaint was filed against the watchdog for culpable homicide by the wife of a Trinamool Congress candidate, who died of Covid-19.

Polls were held as scheduled in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry last year. The commission came under the scanner of various high courts, with the Madras HC saying that poll officials should “probably be booked for murder”. It asked the EC to file a detailed blueprint of measures to ensure Covid-safe counting, which it had submitted.

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