It is perhaps time to ask whether the pandemic has infected democracy too. True, Covid-19 demands urgent decisions and strict enforcements. It is also undeniable that extreme curbs including lockdown may be essential, and that it is all to be done by the government. But when it is not ensured that the extra powers that are wielded for the emergency are exercised in compliance with the Constitution, even democracy may cease to exist by the time the pandemic disappears.
Central and state governments are using special powers of the Covid situation in such a way as to deny citizen's freedoms and fundamental rights, even in matters that are quite unrelated to Covid curbs. Cases are filed against civil rights advocates and activists and they are put in jail. And the parties to ensure that there is no crossing of boundaries by the executive arm of the country - which acquires the extra powers to face the unusual situation - are the other two pillars of democracy, the legislature and the judiciary.
Unfortunately, when the executive gets a free hand using the horror of Covid as a cover, the legislature and judiciary are getting pushed to the sides. The Supreme Court and high courts are considering only 'urgent' cases, and the criteria to decide 'urgent' remain unclear. When the case for home delivery of liquor is heard with urgency, the plight of lakhs of migrant labourers, denied even their basic needs, gets deferred. As for the lower courts, they have come to a level of hearing only remand cases. The case of legislature is still more pathetic. Even in crucial decisions, there is no participation of the ruling party, let alone the Opposition. There has not been any attempt to convene online sessions. There is no way to hear, or get heard, the 'mann ki baat' of the people.
There has never been a time before this when people's assemblies or courts had shed their powers. The argument may be that there is no other way in these days of pandemic. There may also be an excuse to bypass the spirit of democracy by going by the letter of the law. That was what happened in Maharashtra. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray was required by law to get elected as an MLA by 27 May, and the poll was scheduled for 26 March. But due to the Covid and lockdown, that had to be put off indefinitely. Therefore, the track of nomination had to be adopted. A nomination to a legislative council is a weak link of democratic representation. Forget about the council, even for an election to the assembly, can Covid be made a reason? Pandemics may come again, even the current one being forecast to last two years. And during this period, there are elections to be held for local bodies in Kerala and to the state assemblies of Kerala, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Our technology machinery is not going to be ready in the immediate future for conducting online voting. Therefore, it should be made possible to arrange voting by ballot observing the health curbs of the pandemic. It is with the same lockdown in place that in nine countries elections or referendums were conducted. Only recently did South Korea hold the national election observing the lockdown protocol.
It is not only the people's assemblies and the Election Commission that need to be tuned for the pandemic time. When the government dares to make Covid a cover for denial of rights, it is paradoxical that the judiciary is not classified among the essential services that should function even during the pandemic. It is another matter that the judiciary is not averse to keeping away by itself. It is during this period of Covid that Britain delcared its law and justice system an essential servie. In the US too, law and justice come under essential service. What of India? Even a pregnant woman is put in jail under terror laws. Activists who uncovered pilferage of rice meant for public distribution, are put behind bars under old charges. People are tortured in the name of lockdown violation, and wide spread surveillance is going on unchecked. Thus, the executive penetrates into the territory of the judiciary. Thus, Covid has put democracy itself in crisis. People's representatives and the judiciary should recapture the powers that have slipped by. And for that, it is not essential that
Covid goes away first.