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Covid vs Politics : Thumbs up Madras High Court

Albert Thyrniang Albert Thyrniang
03 May 2021

Last week, the Madras High Court held the Election Commission of India (ECI) responsible for the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic. The media used the terms ‘most responsible’, ‘singularly responsible’. Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee reportedly made a scathing remark saying the officials could be booked for murder and asked the poll panel to present before it a blue print for the counting day on May 2. The Chief Justice then asked whether the ECI was living in another planet. 

The hard rap on the knuckles of the ECI came at a time when the country is struggling to battle the crisis that has reached an insurmountable scale and the election body is seen as contributing to this excruciating situation where fresh cases and deaths have been breaking global records on a daily basis. 

The Delhi High Court too called the second wave a ‘tsunami’ while coming down heavily on the Kejriwal government for shortage of beds, oxygen and medicines. The 24x7 funeral pyres, beamed across the globe, in mass crematoriums have become iconic to describe the unprecedented ‘man-made’ tragedy. The eyes of the world are on the country’s political seat presided over by the powerful Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The International Press is also reporting on patients gasping for breath in front of overwhelmed hospitals; relatives who rush COVID patients from hospital to hospital but fail to find a bed; people who are dying lying on trolleys and wooden rickshaws; and doctors and health workers breaking down at their helplessness. The grim reality is beyond description. The official number of cases and deaths is perhaps much fewer than the real numbers. The faceless poor victims will forever remain anonymous. There has been nothing like this before, elderly persons testify.   

The pandemic has reached this magnitude partly because the ECI sanctioned mammoth election rallies and road shows in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry. The callous attitude of the top leadership is responsible for this vicious pandemic that may take weeks to peak. In massive gatherings, the Prime Minister, and Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressed packed venues without mask thus flouting medical protocols they themselves have approved. The Prime Minister’s obsession with winning West Bengal made the deadly and contagious pandemic to take a back seat. When West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee requested ECI to club the last three phases at one go to minimise the spread, the latter ignored the suggestion allowing the BJP leaders to ridicule the CM, taking the proposal as a sign of defeat. 

The Centre’s unpreparedness, lackadaisical attitude, laxity, failed policies and decision paralysis are blamed for this ‘storm’ as the Prime Minister himself coined it. Things would have been different had the warning from the UK’s second wave was paid heed to. Had the Centre funded production of vaccines, had the vaccines been booked much earlier and in adequate numbers, had the PM Cares-funded 162 units of oxygen plants across India ordered in October last been executed and had the elections been low keyed, the long queues of ambulances with critical patients at hospitals, the frantic calls for beds, the online requests for medicines and oxygen, the sight of hospital corridors and lobbies converted into wards, the dead at overflowing mortuaries, the wailing relatives outside hospitals and funerals at crowded crematoriums could have been on a much lesser scale. 

All this is because the Modi government was in euphoria when cases started showing a downward trend. In the beginning of March this year, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan declared the "end game" of the Covid-19 pandemic while singing praises of Modi for leading in defeating the virus. In this celebrative mood, the virulent and double mutative virus was ignored in favour of the election fanfare.  

Leaders of all political parties organised massive meetings flouting every protocol. The Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister themselves extensively toured the poll-bound states as if COVID-19 has disappeared; and addressed massive crowds with no masks and social distancing. Do we expect ordinary citizens to behave contrary to the example set by the first and second in command? 

With the pandemic at the background, the ECI did not stand its ground as an independent constitutional body to halt public rallies. It is no longer independent. We have been witnessing that heads of constitutional institutions secure post-retirement appointments proving that these institutions’ independence is compromised. The ECI was even accused of favouring the BJP by fixing staggered election dates and conducting polls in eight phases in over a month. The Madras High Court’s comments expose that the functioning of the ECI is guided by the desire to please the ruling party and government of the day.

Having brought the situation beyond control, there was a string of criticism of the Prime Minister from across the globe. The Times wrote, “Modi leads India out of lockdown and into a Covid apocalypse”. A day later The Australian daily reproduced it shortening the title to “Modi leads India into a viral apocalypse”.  Similar articles appeared in The Guardian and The New York Times blaming Modi’s ‘overconfidence’, his obsession with his ‘strongman image’ and his ‘arrogant’ and ‘incompetent’ leadership as the reason for the catastrophic ‘hell’. 

The Prime Minster who receives accolades and acclamations readily should accept these censures in his stride. For accomplishments and successes, he is the only focal point. All ministers and public representatives give credit to him at the drop of a hat. When a disaster is ‘swallowing’ the nation, when the under-funded healthcare system is exposed, when the acts of commissions and omissions in preventing a calamity of the century are listed, rebukes should be tolerated at the least. 
This may be too much to ask from this government as Indian High Commission in Australia termed the article in The Australian “completely baseless, malicious and slanderous”. Critical views and posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were asked to be taken down. The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, has taken intolerance to another level. He has threatened to seize the property of those who ‘spread rumours’ of shortage of oxygen in his state. The police have booked a man in Amethi for requesting Oxygen via Twitter. 

In such a scenario, courts in this country, particularly the High Courts and the Supreme Court, should rescue the people. The Madras High Court gave a shining example. Other Courts too need to follow suit and stand by the citizens of this country.

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