The Election Commission of India (ECI) deserves praise for accepting a genuine demand by the state government and various political parties to postpone the Punjab Assembly polls in view of Guru Ravidas Jayanti. Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi and other leaders had appealed to the poll panel to reschedule voting, which was initially slated for February 14, so that followers of Guru Ravidas — a revered poet-saint of the Bhakti movement — could travel from Punjab to Uttar Pradesh to celebrate his birth anniversary on February 16. Lakhs of devotees converge on Varanasi, the birthplace of Guru Ravidas, to pay obeisance on Magha Purnima every year.
Unanimity among political parties is rare, especially during the election season. What has made all stakeholders speak in one voice in this case is the importance of the Ravidasia community as a vote bank. Doaba, which sends 23 MLAs to the 117-seat Punjab Assembly, accounts for lakhs of followers of Guru Ravidas. No party can afford to ignore the interests of this influential group, considering that this is apparently a ‘no wave’ election which might throw up a hung House. The bottom line is that every seat counts.
However, amid the electoral compulsions, various parties have conveniently chosen to ignore the fact that the celebrations in Varanasi will witness a huge congregation under the shadow of the pandemic. The event could become a coronavirus superspreader if the third wave does not subside by mid-February. Varanasi is represented in the Lok Sabha by PM Narendra Modi, who has been repeatedly urging citizens of the country to follow Covid protocols. It will be a big challenge for the BJP government in poll-bound UP to make large crowds toe the line, particularly since cancellation of the festivities is not an option in view of the religious sentiments at stake. Last year, the Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand was one of the contributory factors to the massive surge in infections during the devastating second wave. It remains to be seen whether adequate steps will be taken this time to ensure a Covid-safe pilgrimage.