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The Omicron variant of coronavirus is currently terrorizing the whole world. Preliminary research shows that this variant is five times more infectious than others. In the midst of this new attack of the virus, election rallies are attracting large crowds in five states. Shouldn’t we immediately take steps to prevent election rallies from becoming super spreaders?

Many experts are calling for lockdowns. They are armed with data to substantiate their fears, which show how the richest countries have so far failed to overcome covid. India is fortunate that for the past several weeks, less than 10,000 new cases are being reported every day, while in the US, it has crossed 80,000 a day.

This is why curbs are being imposed in many countries. Greece has enforced a fine of $113 a month for those who did not get vaccinated. It has also proposed to cut one-third of the pension of those above 60 years and have not been vaccinated. In the UK, where people were walking around maskless until a few days ago, it has again been made mandatory in public places. New Zealand and Taiwan, which were praised for handling the situation in previous phases of the pandemic, have also implemented containment measures. Curfew is in force in all the countries in Africa.

Recently, when journalists asked US President Joe Biden about Omicron, his reply was that there was no need for panic, and he does not see any far-reaching consequences for the economy. On Thursday, his administration announced some new measures to tackle covid. Everyone knows how his predecessor Donald Trump ridiculed covid and its effects. British PM Boris Johnson had also made the same mistake; the UK is still bearing the brunt.

In this time of apprehension and panic, what is India’s position? Due to the untiring efforts of the Union and state governments, we could control the pandemic to a great extent, but no one knows how Omicron will behave. The government machinery is on high alert, but campaigns have started for assembly polls in five states. Crowds are turning up in large numbers. What happened in the Bengal election and the Kumbh is still fresh in our memories.

The Election Commission (EC) was criticized back then for neglecting necessary precautions while managing the polls. Why can’t the Centre, political parties and the EC together start the process of finding a solution? Prime Minister Narendra Modi had set an example for making calls for a symbolic Kumbh. It was accepted by the sages and saints. If Kumbh can be made symbolic, then why not poll campaigns?

This is the age of social media. Smartphones are being used by more than 500 million Indians. About 77O million Indians have internet access. The flow of news and opinion is no longer dependent on the old system of communication. Modi himself had started the practice of using digital tools before the 2014 general election. Now is the time to take the idea forward.

The time has come for political parties to get together and decide to give up the old methods of approaching voters. With digital initiatives, their opinions will reach the voters immediately and the resources that are spent on mobilizing crowds will be saved. Anyway, the voter has now become so aware that crowds at rallies are no longer a guarantee for winning elections.

If poll campaigns could be done by using modern technology, it will also curb the use of black money. The EC should ban large rallies and relax the limit on the amount of money that can be spent on the use of media so that the details of expenditure can be transparent. The tax collected from this can improve the health of the government exchequer. Politicians need the media to ensure their message last for a long time and to reach the masses. Besides, campaigns often fuel conflicts at the local level. Even after the polls, these political rivalries trigger violence. All such problems will be solved automatically through digital campaigns.

The question is how will this happen? Will politicians accept it? To make my point clear, I would like to give you an example of the social reform movement that started in Bengal during the 19th century. The path of such movements was even more difficult. Great social evils such as sati, child marriage, untouchability and the zamindari system were destroying society for centuries, but these reforms took shape slowly and today’s society can proudly say that we have the ability to be free from our own evils.

We should not forget that polls are being held in only five states and the leaders/workers who participate are just a few thousand, whereas the entire society was affected by those social reforms. Will the EC be able to muster the courage to take this initiative?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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