With every party and candidate escalating their campaign for the Bihar assembly elections, the Election Commission's warning of stern action for violation of Covid-19 protocol has fallen on deaf ears, with people gathering in huge numbers at rallies without wearing masks or caring to abide by social distancing norms.
Of late, several senior leaders including BJP in-charge for Bihar polls Devendra Fadnavis, former union minister and Chapra MP Rajiv Pratap Rudy, his Gaya counterpart Vijay Manjhi, BJP national spokesman Syed Shahnawaz Hussain and former state minister Narendra Singh have fallen victim to the contagion. However, this has not had any salutary effect with crowds being unmanageable at most election rallies.
Strict Covid-19 protocol was maintained at the rallies addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Dehri, Gaya and Bhagalpur, and during Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's public meetings at Hisua and Kahalgaon on Friday, but elsewhere the crowds have thrown caution to the wind in their unbridled enthusiasm.
The Election Commission had on October 21, directed Bihar's Chief Electoral Officer and district administrations to "invoke appropriate and relevant penal provisions" under the Disaster Management Act and the Indian Penal Code against candidates found violating its orders.
"Instances of such public meetings have come to notice of the Commission, where large numbers of crowds have assembled in utter violation of social distancing norms and the political leaders/campaigners are addressing the gathering without wearing masks in complete disregard of the guidelines/instructions issued by Election Commission," the poll panel had said.
Candidates and organisers found violating the poll watchdog's instructions could face cases and imprisonment up to two years under the relevant sections of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and the IPC.
Yet, hundreds of people are still seen attending the rallies of top leaders including Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the grand alliance's chief ministerial candidate Tejashwi Yadav without wearing face masks and pushing and shoving each other for space.
Additional chief Electoral Officer Sanjay Kumar Singh said magistrates deployed at rally venues have been instructed to strictly enforce Covid-19 norms, including wearing of masks and maintaining social distancing. "We are trying to enforce the Election Commission's guidelines to the extent possible. If someone is found deliberately trying to violate the social distancing norms, then a case will be lodged against them," he told PTI. He said several cases have been registered against those found violating the COVID-19 protocol but expressed his inability to share the exact number.
BJP candidate Pawan Kumar Yadav told PTI that many people wore masks but social distancing could not be maintained despite the circles drawn on the ground because of the heavy rush.
As Nitish Kumar is addresses 4-5 rallies every day, his supporters seem more concerned about defeating the RJD than being cautious of the pandemic. "Corona will strike people like Lalu Prasad and his party men who turned the state into jungle raj," said an attendee at Kumar's rally in Bhore in Gopalganj district.
Chaos prevailed at a grand alliance rally at SBJ High School in Madhepura's Bihariganj where Subhashini Yadav, daughter of socialist veteran Sharad Yadav, is in the fray on a Congress ticket. "We will get jobs if he comes to power. Can there be a bigger issue for people like us who don't have jobs?" a grand alliance supporter asked, brushing aside questions about not wearing a mask at Tejashwi Yadav's rally in Aurangabad.
However, the local administration has not been sitting idle. There have been some instances where organisers of such rallies have been booked for violation of the Covid-19 norms. The Gaya district administration lodged an FIR against the organisers of a rally organised for BJP president J P Nadda on October 11 where social distancing norms were allegedly violated. The FIR was registered on a complaint by circle officer Rajiv Ranjan. An FIR was also registered against Sadhu Yadav, the estranged brother-in-law of RJD supremo Lalu Prasad, in Gopalganj. He is contesting on a BSP ticket.
Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) spokesman Danish Rizwan said his party was distributing sanitizers and masks among the people before the rallies and was also appealing to them from the dais to maintain social distancing. "But sometimes people forget everything and try to come close to the stage leading to some pushing and shoving," he added.
Bihar had reported over 2.12 lakh Covid-19 cases till October 25. However, the state has had a high recovery rate, which went up to 94.69 on Sunday.