The schedule for Assembly elections in five States announced by the Election Commission of India (ECI) on January 8 was along expected lines. Polling will begin in Uttar Pradesh on February 10 and end on March 7, spanning seven phases. The Manipur polls would be held in two phases and the Goa, Punjab and Uttarakhand polls in one. Given the size of the States and deployment of paramilitary forces, the ECI has split the polling into seven phases this time, as in the 2017 Assembly polls. In the U.P. elections, the ECI has stuck to its earlier pattern of starting with constituencies in the western part of the State first and then moving towards the east. Dismissing reports of the Bharatiya Janata Party asking for the phases to be from east to west, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra said that the polls would be held from west to east and that no party had made a demand during the ECI’s visit to U.P. in December to change this. The farm protests have had more of an impact in western U.P. The announcement of the poll schedule also came with a total ban on physical campaigning till January 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic entering its third wave. The ECI plans on reviewing the situation, including prevailing positivity rates in the States, before deciding on allowing any rallies after January 15.
Till then, candidates and parties have been encouraged to use online ways to reach out to voters, throwing a challenge to the election authorities on enforcing the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) and monitoring expenditure. Considering the fact that several emotive and controversial issues are at play, this is going to be a tough test for the ECI. It will have to reinforce its impartiality and rigour to ensure that the rules of the game are followed by all parties. Political parties must take special care to not only follow the MCC but also observe COVID-related additional restrictions on campaigning. Ruling parties both at the Centre and States have to bear an extra burden of ensuring that they do not misuse official machinery to influence the elections. Social media have made toxicity a low risk, high reward instrument of political campaigns, causing serious harm to social cohesion and national integrity. The breach of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’ssecurity in Punjab took a political colour, but the issue must now be left to the Supreme Court which has decided to appoint a judicial commission to inquire into it. The substance and rhetoric of the campaign will be adversarial in a multiparty democracy, but they need not, and must not, be socially divisive. The elections must be a celebration of democracy, and not a threat to it.