As of September 21, 2021, there have been 33,478,419 cases of COVID-19 reported by the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Authorized by the Disaster Management Act of 2005, India implemented strict lockdown and social distancing measures early on in the pandemic. After a steady reduction in cases since mid-September 2020, the Indian government began easing restrictions, lifting capacity restrictions on recreational activities and indoor gatherings at the end of January. State governments dismantled specialized COVID centers set up for the first wave. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s successful defeat of COVID-19 at the World Economic Forum. But just a few weeks after the prime minister’s statement, India entered its second wave in early February.
During April to June 2021, the country reported record number of new infections and deaths during the second wave. As the country struggled to provide much-needed medical supplies and dealt with vaccine shortages, there have been questions as to what sparked this striking uptick in cases. A driving force may be due to the government’s inaction in preventing large gatherings and rallies and failure to implement strict polling station COVID-19 protocols for state elections that took place in four states and one union territory, as well as for local elections that occurred in at least 13 states.
The Election Commission of India announced on February 26, 2021, that Legislative Assembly elections would take place for West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, and Puducherry, despite growing concerns and calls for postponement. By-elections — filling vacant seats between general elections — for legislative assemblies, councils, and local bodies also occurred in 13 states. In early March, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium, a multi-agency network established to monitor the spread of COVID-19, warned officials of the existence of a new, more contagious variant. The elections began at the end of March and spanned until the end of April, with elections in West Bengal occurring in numerous phases.
As the government prepared for the upcoming elections, little caution was heeded to prevent large gatherings and rallies for candidates. The government viewed the country as being in the endgame of COVID-19 and instead pivoted its focus on vaccine production and distribution and away from public health measures. Meanwhile, campaign rallies were held by political leaders spanning multiple parties — attracting maskless crowds, numbering in the tens of thousands. Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah attended more than 50 rallies in the 51 days leading up to the election, failing to enforce safety precautions at these events. These actions by government officials were in stark contrast with the increasing case count and medical supply shortages occurring across the country.
The Election Commission issued broad guidelines on March 3, 2021, for COVID-19 safety at polling stations, including sanitizer, face mask, and spacing requirements. However, no statement was released regarding political gatherings at this time. Despite the government’s masking guidelines, polling workers were not provided proper personal protective equipment (PPE). In Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, the state deployed school teachers to assist at the polls. Teacher unions and lawyers pushed to have the election postponed to no avail. Guidelines regarding PPE, sanitizer, and social distancing were not followed, resulting in nearly 2,000 civil servants dying. The Uttar Pradesh Primary Teachers Association reported that at least 1,621 of their members died due to working election polls. Many teachers felt pressured to be in attendance in order to avoid possible suspension. The Uttar Pradesh government provided compensation to the families of poll workers who died due to contracting COVID-19, but a positive COVID-19 test was required and the state education minister reported that only three teachers died due to the elections.
On April 22, the Election Commission finally released a statement banning all roadshows, rallies, and limiting public gatherings to 500 people. By this time, all states had completed voting, with the exception of West Bengal, which had three rounds remaining.
The critical response to the federal and state government’s lack of caution surrounding elections has been swift. The Madras High Court noted the Election Commission’s failure to provide guidelines restricting political rallies and gatherings makes them “singularly responsible” for the sharp increase in cases. Meanwhile, the Delhi High Court scolded the central government’s lack of focus on distributing medical supplies to the capital, stating that “enough is enough.”
Countries have conducted elections during the pandemic without seeing a significant spike in cases. South Korea by-elections were held in early April with increased turnout from prior years. Existing COVID-19 restrictions remained in place, as well as additional measures, including temperature checks and sanitizer at voting booths, mail-in ballot voting, and separate voting times for quarantined individuals. A poster and text message voting campaign informed voters on the voting code of conduct, which required all voters to follow safety protocols.
Sri Lanka held parliamentary elections in early August with 76% voter turnout. Strict COVID-19 guidelines were put in place for campaign rallies — requiring face masks, social distancing, hand washing stations, and limiting attendance to 300 people (500 people when party leaders were present). Additional restrictions for polling stations managed the capacity and movement of individuals, as well as sanitization. Although other factors may be at play when assessing South Korea and Sri Lanka’s low case count during elections, these countries have similar population densities to India and, therefore, serve as meaningful comparisons. As the Indian government reflects on this past election season and prepares for upcoming elections in 2022, the country should prioritize restricting mass gatherings, requiring face masks, vaccinating its population, and providing sanitization and PPE at polling stations. Proper support is required from the government in order to ensure that there is minimal spread. This requires coordination with the scientific community and state governments to ensure people are able to safely participate in elections. The government’s messaging and actions will be imperative in setting the tone for state and local elections. If we are still in the midst of a pandemic, an abundance of caution, regardless of current case counts, will be necessary.
Suhasini Ravi was a COVID-19 Law Lab research assistant at the O’Neill Institute and is a J.D. candidate.