New Delhi: Taking note of the rising Covid cases, the Election Commission of India on Saturday banned public rallies, roadshows, car and bike rallies and processions till January 15 in the five poll-bound states. In a bid to assure the voters, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra said all polling personnel, security personnel and counting staff shall be doubly vaccinated.
Declaring the election schedule for Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur, Mr Chandra urged political parties to shift to the digital mode of campaigning and announced the doubling of air time allocated to political parties on public broadcaster Doordarshan for electioneering.
The head of the polling body also said that since nobody could accurately predict how the Omicron curve would behave, the EC would take a call after January 15 on whether to retain or relax the ban.
The weekly positivity rate in the five states as on January 7 was still between 0.24% and 2.1%, though Goa was higher at 13% due to outsiders testing positive. Also, vaccination rates were improving with around 15 crore people across the states having got their first dose and 9 crore both the doses. However, UP and Punjab are witnessing a major surge with the average growth of active cases at 44% & 47%, respectively. The two states also have a low vaccination coverage.
Explaining the ban till January 15, an EC functionary said the commission wanted to clamp down on gatherings at the “spreading stage” itself. With a study indicating that the third wave may peak by January-end or early February, the EC expects physical rallies to be possible by the time the campaign period starts on January 27. “Until then, parties and candidates are free to reach electors either virtually or through letters, pamphlets and posters. They can also do door-to-door campaigning in a group of not more than five people, including the candidate. Even nukkad sabhas can be held, though they will not be allowed on public roads, roundabouts or public corners,” said the EC functionary.
“On the recommendation of ECI, the Union Health Ministry has issued orders on 8th February 2021 that all election officials and employees will be treated as frontline workers and all eligible officials shall be given a precautionary booster dose accordingly,” Chandra said.
He said the polling time has been increased by one hour and the number of electors per polling station has been reduced to 1,250 from 1,500.
The Commission also imposed a campaign curfew between 8 pm and 8 am. “There will be no campaigning during this time on any day,” Chandra said.
The Commission has also reduced the maximum number of star campaigners from 40 to 30 for national and state parties.
For smaller, unrecognised parties, the number has been brought down to 15 in place of 20, it said.
“Covid-19 patients and all others who may be under quarantine will be allowed to cast their vote during the last hour of the poll day at their respective polling stations, under the supervision of health authorities, strictly following Covid-19 related preventive measures,” Chandra said, adding sector magistrates shall coordinate this activity in their allocated polling stations.
Political parties have been asked to provide masks and hand sanitisers to people attending rallies if such events are allowed, Chandra said.
The Commission has also banned victory celebrations and only two persons will be allowed to accompany the candidate to collect the winning certificate.