New Delhi: An Election Commission (EC) official first heard about the term personal protective equipment (PPE), the clothing, face shields, goggles, etc used for the prevention of infections, in March when it entered the popular lexicon amid the worsening Covid-19 pandemic. Even then, he thought it was solely for doctors and others involved in tacking the disease. Little did the official know that a few months later he would find himself in a PPE suit conducting a Rajya Sabha election in Madhya Pradesh on Friday.
“For about 45 minutes, when the only Covid-19 positive legislator came to vote, all the polling officials were in PPE suits, like the MLA [member of legislative assembly],” the official said. “It took some of us nearly as long to put the suits on. ”
The legislator was brought for voting in an ambulance that was sanitised multiple times. To further reduce the risk of transmission, all fans and coolers were switched off at the polling booth when he voted.
PPE suits and ambulances were part of EC’s guidelines for conducting the elections to vacant Rajya Sabha seats across eight states. This was the first major voting exercise since the pandemic prompted sweeping measures in March to ensure social distancing to check its spread. The polls were earlier scheduled for March.
Nearly 1,000 legislators participated in the polling in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Rajasthan.
Meghalaya’s chief electoral officer, F R Kharkongor, called the election challenging and added they revisited their entire rulebook and re-evaluated the procedure. “But after a few hiccups, we managed fine.”
Another EC official in the state said a coughing legislator sent them into a tizzy for a few seconds. “But once the doctor examined the legislator, we realised it was because the legislator choked on something...”
The official said the people in their part of the country always greet each with handshakes but this time all they saw were namastes as the lawmakers sought to ensure social distancing.
In Andhra Pradesh, a poll official said entourages that normally accompany the chief minister and senior ministers when they come to vote were subdued.
The official said guidelines were sent to all legislators that also said they should travel to the polling venue with as few people as possible.
The legislators in Andhra wore colourful masks as they turned out to vote. “Some were even wearing their party symbol on their masks,” the official said. “Unlike previous elections, the mood was somber. Electors came, voted, and left almost immediately.”
Andhra Pradesh’s chief electoral officer, K Vijayanand, said no one took off their masks, even as they voted and a majority were wearing gloves.
The Madhya Pradesh official cited above said the atmosphere was more “businesslike”. “Normally there is a lot of chit chat. Legislators hang around after they are done and gossip for hours, but this time, everyone kept their distance, voted, and left...”
A poll official in Gujarat said the discharge and an end to the quarantine period of three lawmakers tested Covid-19 positive helped smoothen the election process.
Gujarat’s additional chief electoral officer, Ashok Manek, said everyone was careful and maintained social distancing norms. “Extra care was taken and everyone was screened at the entrance of the [polling venue].”
The election was “smooth sailing”, said Rajasthan’s top poll official Anand Kumar. “...[We] were extra cautious. But all in all, it went off pretty well.”