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In a time of public crisis, how important are elections to a democracy?

 

Niharika Singh

niharika singh upWith the eighth and final phase in Bengal only now concluded, India conducted another local election amidst a collapsing healthcare infrastructure, administrative miscalculations and immense scheming. It appears that the world's largest democracy and its rulers aim for an electoral win over any collateral damage, a term that arose in the 1960s. Largely used as military vocabulary collateral damage in essence can always be placed squarely in the conditions in India at the moment.

Before we proceed, let's understand the numbers. In an article published in The Print on 20 April 2021, the assertion has been that in a way large gatherings during the election campaigning have been a spreader of COVID-19 virus – "Since March 20, the number of active Covid cases in the state is over 53,000 — a 1500 per cent rise. While several factors have contributed to the spread of Covid infection, large gatherings have been the major reason for the spike in cases."

Amongst many other things, the indifference towards a world recognized pandemic during fervour for local elections represents another crisis which has been lurking in the background for a while- India's collapsing federal balance. The Modi government has consistently mismanaged India's constitutional respect for federalism- whether it is the taxation mess up under GST, the hasty imposition of demonetization, or as of now the imposition of all accountability on states.

The Central government had not prepared adequately for a crisis despite living in a crisis for more than a year now. Our claim of being a welfare State is put into question when the government begins stressing on being 'self-dependent'. In fact, when we look closely at how governance in rural India is organised, especially in the Northern States, it becomes evident that one is after all responsible for herself. For instance, when the State governments did intervene in the initial exodus of labour workforce from New Delhi in 2020, they did so by treating their own citizens as abstract bodies. By forcefully mass sanitising in hoards, the State behaved as exterminators, denying the returning population of the dignity of being people because for one, they had rarely interacted with that population for anything else except as vote banks.

The government's growing disinterest in federal structures is also revealed by looking at the urban–rural divide in the resource allocation for training the government workforce for COVID-19 pandemic. While National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR) has had trainings for community workers in association with governments of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, most of the work done in the Hindi belt has been by non-governmental organisations, Self Help groups (SHGs) Community Radios or volunteers. This highlights the manner of organisation of care in rural India – while it is primarily run by community leaders, a lot of the labour is considered as honorary or volunteer. By refusing to adequately train the panchayat level workers in all the states about the pandemic, the government failed to actualize the panchayati raj system to its full potential as a caring unit. Consequently, this implied that they had to deal with the burdens of state failure by overstretching their resources and infrastructure.

That there is a complete breakdown of the public healthcare system in urban India is no longer contested. That the mutant virus strain will reach the rural parts of India is a high possibility. Uttar Pradesh especially is a vulnerable State and with Panchayat elections not being cancelled or postponed, the situation is likely to worsen.

The Allahabad High Court on 19th April, 2021 directed the government of Uttar Pradesh to enforce a lockdown in the five cities of Prayagraj, Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi and Gorakhpur till April 26 in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. The judgement passed by Allahabad High Court in a suo moto PIL also recorded the manner in which State Election Commission and the UP government are proceeding with the elections, forcing teachers and government workers to be present for election duties. The three tier Panchayat polls is in its second phase and there has been enough evidence in circulation that COVID-19 prevention guidelines are far from being followed. However the order was stayed by the Supreme Court the next day with Solicitor General Tushar Mehta appearing on behalf of the UP government.

Which brings into question what takes precedence in a democracy – an electoral procedure or a public crisis? "During campaigning candidates are allowed to roam around house to house with as many people as they want. They don't wear masks. You can't even think there is pandemic here," says Hari Pandey, a Community Radio Reporter based in Kanpur Dehat. The public does not want elections cancelled he feels, there is a lot of earnings for everyone and many have suffered financially since last year.

In Kanpur Dehat, ASHA and Anganwadi workers have reassumed their roles as frontline workers, which means apart from their regular work they also maintain rolls of people coming back to villages and give information on testing and isolation and even assuage panic. Last year ASHA workers were paid a minor incentive of INR 1000 a month from January to June 2020 for COVID-19 related activities. They were also promised adequate protective equipment to ensure their safety against the infection. Both ASHA and Anganwadi workers are considered volunteers which reflects in the way they can be given direction from several departments and yet not be paid minimum wages.

The rural health infrastructure is organised in a manner which promotes people from the community itself be involved as paraprofessional or semiprofessional health workers and provide primary health care in the villages. They are not part of the formal health services. This also means that medical health is reoriented to community health, disease prevention and care. And at the frontline of this are women from the community.

Cases are rising on a daily basis. In Siwan District in Bihar, 25-30 positive cases have been reported daily since last week. Says Rana Pratap Singh, a local news reporter, "There is no scene for testing people who are coming back from cities. People go straight home from the railway stations. RT- PCR tests by private centres are banned." In a notification dated 21.04.2021, the State Election Commission of Bihar has decided to take a decision on election dates in the next 15 days keeping in mind the spread of the pandemic and the involvement of the Zila Parishad in the prevention and protection affairs.

Elections are a crowded affair in our country, whether it is nomination, campaigning or voting. Despite the notifications of Election Commission on practising social distancing and sanitising the polling booth, it is unlikely to be put in stringent practice. Representation alone is not democracy. Should elections be postponed? One theoretical positions suggest the answer is yes. Democracy has largely been burdened with voting and appearing to vote. "Go out and vote", "You voted for this" – are some constants on social media websites anytime the discussion on administration arises. But the binary of appearing for voting and voting for the wrong entity is not democracy, for voting is the beginning of democracy not the end of it.

Could elections have been postponed? The answer again, according to the Allahabad high court is yes. Amongst numerous other instances of elections being postponed in the country for various reasons, most recently the Panchayat Elections in Uttar Pradesh that were scheduled for December 2020 were postponed to be performed before end of May 2021 on orders of Allahabad High Court. The same court also recognised the sudden rise in cases and the potential risk it has for rural India. Many experts have touted the UP Panchayat polls to be a prequel to the Assembly elections scheduled next year and that is possibly one of the main reasons for the resistance in postponing them. Democracy is after all regulated within the cycle of voting and non-voting again. As Hari puts it, "sachai ye hai ki chunav pehle hain, insaan baad me (The truth is that elections come before human beings)."

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 Niharika Singh works with community radio.

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