New Delhi: Against the backdrop of "unprecedented public health concerns", the Election Commission on Friday invoked is constitutional powers to put in place restrictions on campaigning by political parties, including curtailing its time, for the West Bengal assembly elections.
In an order, the poll panel curtailed the time for campaign up to 7 pm. Earlier it was up to 10 pm.
"No rallies, public meetings, street plays, nukkad sabhas, shall be allowed on any day during the days of campaign between 7 pm and 10 am with effect from 7 pm of April 16," the order said.
It also extended the silence period from 48 hours to 72 hours in each of the remaining three of the eight phases of the West Bengal polls to be held on April 22, 26 and 29. The fifth phase is on Saturday.
During the silence period, which is usually for 48 hours before voting day, parties and candidates cannot hold rallies and meetings.
"Silence period for rallies, public meetings, street plays, nukkad sabhas, bike rallies or any gathering for campaigning purposes shall be extended to 72 hours before the end of the poll for Phase 6, Phase 7 and Phase 8 in the state of West Bengal," the Election Commission order said.
"Thereby, for these phases, campaign shall end at 6.30 PM on April 19; on April 23; and on April 26 respectively," it said.
The poll panel observed that it has noted several instances of election meetings and campaigns "wherein norms of social distancing, wearing of masks have been flouted in blatant" in disregard of the commission's guidelines.
The COVID-19 tally in West Bengal mounted to 6,43,795 on Friday after the highest- single-day spike of 6,910 new cases was reported in the state, the health department said in a bulletin.
The commission said it has also taken a serious view against repeated violations by star campaigners, political leaders and candidates "who are supposed to be torch bearers for the campaign against COVID-19", grossly violating the health protocols, exposing themselves as well as the public to the danger of the infection.
The decision came on a day when the state chief electoral officer held an all-party meet in Kolkata where he stressed on adherence of COVID guidelines issued by the poll panel.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) said the remaining three phases should be clubbed into one to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The EC order curtailing campaigning indicates that the demand to club the remaining phases has been turned down.
A total of 114 seats are scheduled to go for polls in the last three phases. At least five candidates of different parties contesting the ongoing assembly election in Bengal have tested positive for COVID-19.
Out of them, three are from the Trinamool Congress (TMC), and one each from Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and BJP, a West Bengal health department official said.
In a separate letter to head of recognised political parties, the EC said candidates and political parties will ensure "absolute" adherence to COVID-19 guidelines in letter and sprit.
"Violations , if any shall be sternly dealt with and action, including criminal action, taken as per extant legal framework," it said.
The EC said it will be the responsibility of the organisers of public meetings, rallies, to provide masks and sanitisers to every person attending these events at their cost "which shall be added and counted within limits of prescribed expenditure."
The letter said star campaigners, political leaders, candidates and aspiring policy makers will demonstrate by their personal example and nudge all supporters in the beginning of the rally, meeting and any other event during campaign to wear mask, use sanitisers and maintain social distance.
District election officers and returning officers will be free to cancel public meetings and rallies if any violations are observed.