Pandemic overshadows Telangana’s urban local body polls


The April 30 election to seven urban local bodies in Telangana is drawing more attention for being conducted amid an intense second wave of Covid-19 pandemic than the contest among political parties.

Despite the demands by opposition parties to postpone the polls in view of the massive surge in Covid cases across the state, the State Election Commission (SEC) is going ahead with the conduct of the polls as Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government is not in favour of deferring the elections.

Both the major opposition parties Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have demanded postponement of the polls and even sought the intervention by Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan.

The governor reportedly sought a report from SEC but the latter informed her of the measures being taken by it to check the spread of Covid during the polling.

SEC issued the notification for the polls on April 15 despite the intense second wave of the pandemic sweeping through the state. It announced that the Covid-19 guidelines will be strictly adhered to during the polling. This, however, failed to convince the opposition parties.

Though senior Congress leader Mohammed Ali Shabbir approached Telangana High Court, seeking orders to SEC to postpone the polls in view of the spike in Covid cases, the latter declined to intervene and suggested him to move the SEC.

The SEC decided to go ahead with the polls as scheduled, apparently after the state government conveyed that the elections can be held with all Covid related precautions in place. The decision baffled the opposition parties as the state is battling a big surge in Covid cases.

The SEC decided to go ahead despite the night curfew imposed by the state government last week after the High Court pulled it up for not taking any steps to check the public gatherings. The government acted after the High Court set 48-hour ultimatum to take a decision on imposing night curfew or week-end lockdown.

Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, his son and minister K. T. Rama Rao and some other leaders have also been hit by the pandemic.

The chief minister is said to have infected after he addressed an election rally in Nagarjuna Sagar Assembly constituency, where the by-election was held on April 17. TRS candidate Nomula Bhagat and some others also tested positive for Covid.

The poll panel has only curtailed the duration of the poll campaign for municipal elections. The campaign will come to an end 72 hours before the polling. Usually, the campaign ends 48 hours before the polling.

State Election Commissioner C. Partha Sarathi also issued orders that there should be no campaign from 7 p.m. till 8 a.m.

The SEC on April 15 issued notification for elections to Greater Warangal Municipal Corporation, Khammam Municipal Corporation, Atchampet, Siddipet, Nakrekaral, Jadcherla and Kothur municipalities.

A total of 11,26,221 voters are eligible to cast their votes in 248 wards of these urban local bodies.

Greater Warangal Municipal Corporation has 66 wards while Khammam Municipal Corporation has 60 wards. Among five municipalities, Siddipet is the largest with 43 wards while Kothur is smallest with only 12 wards.

Warangal, Khammam and Siddipet are among the towns witnessing a surge in Covid cases over last few days. Health minister Eatala Rajender himself admitted that urban areas like corporations and municipalities were reporting more cases.

Telangana Congress president N. Uttam Kumar Reddy, who too has been found infected by Covid, has appealed to the governor to stop elections to the urban local bodies. He fears that these elections may become super spreader. “This will endanger the lives of over 30 lakh people including voters, leaders, officials and their family members,” Reddy wrote to the governor.

BJP also submitted a memorandum to the governor, urging to her to use her special powers and advise the SEC to postpone the elections.

“Elections for local bodies are important, but more important is the lives of people. Elections ought to happen in a free atmosphere but not in a situation when every individual is skeptical of another for fear of catching infection. Under the circumstances, electioneering process would expose the parties, workers and people at large to greater risk,” said BJP.

It’s not just the opposition parties who are opposing the urban local body polls. Even the government employees are reluctant to report for election duties.

Despite the assurances by the SEC that all precautions will be taken to check the spread of Covid, the government employees who have been drafted for poll duties are seeking exemption from election duties. About 9,000 polling personnel are to be deployed for the elections.

Some of the employees are either already infected with Covid or fear they may contract the virus during the poll duty as Covid-19 patients will be allowed to cast their votes in the last one hour. Employees who are above 50 years of age and suffer from co-morbidities have sought exemption from the election duty.

The poll panel, however, has directed the returning officers not to give exemptions, except in cases where the employees have strong reasons due to their health condition.

On the political side, the elections will be witnessing multi-cornered contests. Presence of large number of rebels in the fray and potpourri of alliances between political parties have thrown the contest open.

Political analysts say that it will not be a straight TRS versus BJP fight as witnessed in most of the recent by-elections and the polls to Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). They point out that the political parties have formed alliances or entered into electoral understandings keeping in view the local factors.

Each urban local body is witnessing a different situation. Greater Warangal Municipal Corporation (GWMC), the second largest civic body in the state after GHMC, likely to witness a multi-cornered contest in many of the total 66 wards.

Though the main contest is likely to be among TRS, BJP and Congress, the entry of rebels, independents and parties like Telugu Desam, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), actor Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena, Telangana Jana Samithi (TJSP), All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) have thrown the election wide open.

While BJP and Jana Sena have entered into an alliance for polls in Khammam Municipal Corporation (KMC), they are contesting GWMC on their own.

In KMC, which has 60 seats, TRS has entered into an alliance with the CPI. The ruling party has left three seats for the CPI. The CPI-M has entered into an alliance with the Congress. Khammam has been traditionally considered a stronghold of the Left parties but this time CPI and CPI-M have joined hands with rival parties.

TRS, which is way ahead of its rivals in the campaigning, appears confident to capture the urban bodies. It has already deployed its ministers and top leaders for the campaign. The ruling party is upbeat over the results of last month’s elections to two graduate constituencies of State Legislative Council. It not only retained one seat but also wrested the other from BJP.

The saffron party, on the other hand, is going all out to win a big chunk of wards to show that it alone can provide a viable alternative to TRS.