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Karnataka Bypolls: Polls in the time of pandemic
Is a simple 'namaste' as effective as a handshake in establishing a connection with a voter?
As Karnataka faces its first set of elections during the Covid-19 pandemic, candidates for the upcoming polls are facing such seemingly small, yet sensitive predicaments.
Teachers and graduates are set to elect their representatives to the Legislative Council on October 28 and on November 3, Sira and Rajarajeshwarinagar (RR Nagar) will have bypolls.
There's no getting around the fact that it's a tricky path to tread for candidates who are campaigning amidst a steady rise in Covid-19 cases.
'If we refuse a handshake in the interest of maintaining social distancing, there is a risk of the voter perceiving us as inaccessible or hostile,' says D T Srinivasa of the BJP, who is contesting the South East Graduates constituency election as an independent candidate.
Unsurprisingly, not all political leaders are convinced that the polls should be held at this time. Former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) is among the most vocal critics of the decision. He recently warned of a spike in cases, mentioning his own example of contracting fever after campaigning in Sira.
Srinivasa says he has established one clear rule for his campaigning: No speeches or public interaction without social distancing. 'If there is a crowd of more than 50-100 people, I will not turn up at the venue unless social distancing norms are strictly followed,' he said.
The Election Commission has issued a comprehensive set of guidelines to be followed during the campaign and while voting. But while masks, gloves and sanitisers are all fine, controlling the crowd and reaching out to voters amidst the pandemic continue to remain causes for worry.
That is not all. Leading the campaign of parties are leaders who have only recently recovered from Covid-19. Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president D K Shivakumar and Deputy Chief Minister C N Ashwath Narayan are among them.
Undergoing frequent Covid-19 tests has become a requirement for many campaigners. JD(S) leader T A Saravana, who is actively taking part in campaigning for the RR Nagar bypoll, said he, like several others, was taking the Covid-19 test once a week.
'We are doing meetings at the street-level by limiting the number of people. We have to be careful not to overwhelm voters when we go for door-to-door campaigning. We go in small groups with a maximum of three people. We quickly convey what is needed and exit from the premises. Not just the voters and the politicians, even managing media representatives is a challenge,' he pointed out.
As per Election Commission guidelines, door-to-door campaigning should be restricted to a maximum of five people, apart from following all other precautionary measures as mandated for public spaces.
In the 2018 assembly polls, the voter turnout in Sira was 84.77% and 54.34% in RR Nagar. The turnout in the upcoming bypolls is expected to be lower due to the pandemic.
While political leaders have their own set of concerns, the Election Commission too has had to face its share of difficulties. Not only do they have to abide by regular electoral norms, but they also have to follow the guidelines of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
'Social distancing during polls means an increase in polling stations, EVMs and vehicles transporting all the necessary gear. As a result, the cost of conducting the polls is likely to go up by at least 50% compared with the previous years,' Chief Electoral Officer Sanjiv Kumar said.