The Election Commission on Wednesday took a serious view of "utter violation" of social distancing norms during poll campaigning and leaders addressing public meetings without wearing masks in complete disregard of its guidelines.
In an advisory issued to presidents and general secretaries of all recognised national and state parties, the poll panel said chief electoral officers and the district machinery would be expected to invoke appropriate and relevant penal provisions against candidates concerned as well as organisers responsible for such violations.
Separate instructions for strict compliance of guidelines are being issued to chief electoral officers and state governments of poll-going states, it said.
"It has come to the notice of the Commission instances of such public meetings where large crowds assembled in utter violation of social distancing, and the political leaders and campaigners addressing the gatherings without wearing masks in complete disregard of the guidelines and instructions issued by the Election Commission," the poll panel said.
By not following the norms, the EC said, the political parties and candidates are not only flouting its guidelines "with impunity but exposing themselves as well as the public attending the rallies or meetings to the danger of infection during the pandemic".
As the most important stakeholders in the electoral process, the parties are duty-bound to observe the norms determined by the Commission for electioneering, it noted.
Non-compliance of instructions during the period of public interface will attract actions as per provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, besides invocation of the provisions of the Indian Penal Code and other legal provisions, the EC warned referring to its guidelines issued in August.
"The Commission has taken a serious view of the laxity on the part of political parties and candidates, on the ground, in terms of maintaining crowd discipline, and hereby reiterates and further advises them to demonstrate utmost vigil and care during electioneering," the advisory said.
Campaigning is on for Bihar assembly polls as well as for bye-elections in other states.
Assembly polls in Bihar will be held in three phases on October 28, November 3 and November 7. Most of the assembly bypolls will be held on November 3.
Bypolls to the Valmiki Nagar Lok Sabha seat in Bihar and some assembly seats in Manipur will take place on November 7.
The election commission's advisory comes a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged people to follow all COVID guidelines, including wearing of masks, especially during the festive season.
With the onset of festival season, PM Modi on Tuesday made an impassioned appeal to people to follow COVID-19 guidelines, saying this is not the time to be careless as the virus is still around and even a small negligence can dampen the festive spirit.
The poll panel also referred to its October 9 advisory in which it had sought the cooperation of all political parties in following instructions related to COVID-19 at all stages, especially wherever public interface in physical form is involved.
The previous advisory had said the observance of preventive measures, including wearing masks, use of sanitiser and social distancing is a duty cast upon all the stakeholders in the larger interest of public health.
"As representatives of public, this onerous responsibility rests with the political parties to ensure that they not only cooperate with the district machinery in following the due norms of public health safety as prescribed but also instil a sense of discipline for civic behaviour in their cadre while doing ground management during campaign times," it had said.
The Election Commission said it seeks the fullest cooperation from parties so that its district election machinery ensures that all the preventive measures are adhered to by every participant, including organisers.
In August this year, the EC had issued broad guidelines for polls to be held amid the pandemic.
According to the guidelines, a group of five people, including candidates but excluding security personnel, is allowed to take part in door-to-door campaigning.
For roadshows, the commission said convoys of vehicles should be broken after every five vehicles instead of 10 (excluding security vehicles). Public gatherings and rallies can be held subject to adherence to COVID-19 guidelines.
The district election officer should identify in advance dedicated grounds for public gatherings with clearly marked entry and exit points. In all such identified grounds, the district election officer should put markers in advance to ensure social distancing norms.
The district election officer and district superintendent of police should ensure that the number of attendees does not exceed the limit prescribed by the State Disaster Management Authority for public gatherings, the EC had said.
To ensure social distancing norms on polling days, the panel had said that there will be a maximum 1,000 electors instead of 1,500 in a polling station.
In view of this, the state is creating an additional around 34,000 polling stations which are 45 per cent more and will increase the total number of polling stations to around 1,06,000.