When the coronavirus situation in India took turn for the worse in April, the Election Commission of India had considered deferring a few phases of the Assembly polls in five states. But the panel eventually decided against it out of concerns that this would require President’s Rule and would have damaged their reputation, The Indian Express reported on Saturday.

Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar said the poll panel did not stop the elections as such a move would have exposed the Election Commission to the accusation of favouring “one party over another”, leading to “massive hue and cry and popular discontentment”, the newspaper reported.

The revelations were made by Kumar in an affidavit, which he sought to file with the Madras High Court when it took up the matter of conducting elections amid the pandemic.

But the affidavit never reached the court.

The Election Commission stopped Kumar from filing it, saying there “is no precedence of two separate affidavits” being filed by the poll panel in the same case, an unidentified official told The Print.

“The matter was consulted with our senior counsels, and then a decision was taken that his [Kumar’s] request cannot be agreed upon,” the official told the website.

The development signals a split between the Election Commissioners in response to the censure by the Madras High Court. On Friday, The Indian Express had reported that one of the two election commissioners had offered to resign as “punishment” if the Madras High Court so desired.

After Sunil Arora’s retirement as Chief Election Commissioner on April 12, the three-member Commission has Sushil Chandra as CEC and Kumar as Election Commissioner.

The story so far

On April 26, the Madras High Court made scathing remarks about the the Election Commission, saying it was partly responsible for the second wave of Covid-19 ripping through the country.

Assembly elections in five states – West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry – were held amid an unprecedented second wave of the coronavirus.

While the country battled with a record surge in Covid cases and hospitals ran out of beds and oxygen, politicians – including Prime Minister Narendra Modi – were holding densely packed election rallies attended by thousands with little evidence of masks or physical distancing.

Health experts say the massive gatherings and marches are partly to blame for the subsequent rise in Covid infections. Public anger for allowing the elections to go forward despite the risk has been directed at the Election Commission.

But the Commission did nothing to curb crowds.

In West Bengal, which saw the longest ever election in the history of India, the polling exercise led to an astronomical rise in infections, with the state registering the highest growth rate of cases by the end of April.

It was only after the Covid cases surged at an alarming rate that the Election Commission finally restricted campaign events in Bengal. But this was done only after Modi decided to stop campaigning in West Bengal. On April 22, an hour after Modi announced his decision to remain in Delhi and focus on the virus outbreak, the commission capped attendance at rallies at 500 people.

Meanwhile, on April 29, the Election Commission had approached the Madras High Court seeking directions to restrict media coverage on the court’s criticism of the poll panel. The High Court, however, refused to pass any such order. A few days later, the Supreme Court too dismissed the Commission’s plea.

The affidavit

In his affidavit, Kumar said the poll panel had looked into the option of merging the remaining three phases of the eight-phased West Bengal elections. But it found that was not legally feasible since Section 30 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 states that each election phase is distinct and has to be notified separately, according to The Indian Express.

He added that while it was legally possible to merge the last two phases since their dates of notification were same – March 31 – the EC ensured no campaigning took place between April 26 and April 29 by increasing the “silence period” from 48 to 72 hours before polling, the newspaper reported.

The election commissioner added that the Madras High Court’s oral observations on the mishandling of the pandemic had demoralised the EC’s rank and file. Kumar urged the court to not punish the institution but the individual, and offered to take personal responsibility and resign from his position.

“It is submitted that democracy is at peril due to loss of faith in ECI across the length and breadth of the country. I, as Election commissioner cannot escape individual responsibility and leave it to the judgment of Hon’ble court to punish in the manner, the Hon’ble court is pleased to so decide. The Institution, however, needs to be absolved of the doubts cast on it to save the democracy, lest everyone else start making insinuations, allegations in much more magnified, exponentially derogatory terms.”

— Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar, The Indian Express

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