The Election Commission on Friday banned political rallies and public meetings in poll-bound West Bengal between 7 pm and 10 am amid the rising coronavirus cases. The poll panel also increased the silence period for campaigning for the last three phases of voting from 48 hours to 72 hours. The new guidelines came into effect from Friday.

Earlier in the day, the poll panel called an all-party meeting in Kolkata after the Calcutta High Court sought its response on the actions and steps taken on Covid-19 safety protocols during the election campaign. Political parties assured their full cooperation to the Election Commission in adhering to Covid-19 protocols.

In its order, the Election Commission asked candidates and parties to ensure “absolute adherence” to Covid guidelines. It warned of criminal action in case of any violation. It also asked election and returning officers to cancel meetings if there are any violation of Covid protocols.

The commission said the organisers of rallies and meeting will be responsible for providing masks and sanitisers to all those attending the event. They must also ensure physical distancing among the attendees. The poll panel said politicians should “demonstrate their personal example and nudge all supporters” to wear masks, use hand sanitisers and maintain distance.

This comes as many political leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, have been addressing massive rallies and roadshows without masks. On Thursday, West Bengal recorded more than 6,700 new coronavirus cases.

Four phases of the West Bengal Assembly elections have already taken place. The remaining rounds are scheduled to take place on April 17, 22, 26 and 29. Results will be declared on May 2.

Some experts including former Chief Election Commissioner Dr SY Quraishi have suggested that the remaining four phases of voting be held in one go due to the alarming rise in Covid cases recently.

India recorded over 2 lakh new coronavirus cases on Thursday and Friday – a global record high since the pandemic broke out in January 2020. The toll rose to 1,74,308 with 1,185 deaths, the highest since September 19.