With the campaign for the Bihar assembly election reaching a fever pitch, the Election Commission's warning of stern action for violation of COVID-19 protocol has gone unheeded with people gathering in huge numbers at rallies without wearing masks or caring for social distancing.
Several senior leaders including Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi, Bharatiya Janata Party in-charge for Bihar polls Devendra Fadnavis, former union minister and Chapra MP Rajiv Pratap Rudy, his Gaya counterpart Vijay Manjhi, BJP national spokesman Syed Shahnawaz Hussain and former state minister Narendra Singh have fallen victim to the contagion.
However, these have not had any salutary effect and the crowds remain unrestrained as people jostle for occupying vantage positions at election rallies.
Strict COVID-19 protocol was maintained at the rallies addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Dehri, Gaya and Bhagalpur, and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's public meetings at Hisua and Kahalgaon on Friday, but elsewhere the crowds throw caution to the wind in their unbridled enthusiasm.
The Election Commission had on October 21 directed Bihar's Chief Electoral Officer and district administrations to "invoke appropriate and relevant penal provisions" under the Disaster Management Act and the Indian Penal Code against candidates found violating its orders.
"Instances of such public meetings have come to notice of the Commission, where large numbers of crowds have assembled in utter violation of social distancing and the political leaders/campaigners are addressing the gathering without wearing masks in complete disregard of the guidelines/instructions issued by Election Commission," the poll panel had said.
Candidates and organisers found violating the poll watchdog's instructions could face cases and imprisonment up to two years under the relevant sections of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and the IPC.
Hundreds of people are still seen attending the rallies of top leaders including Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the grand alliance's chief ministerial candidate Tejashwi Yadav without wearing face masks and pushing and shoving each other for space.
"When questioned why are they not wearing face masks, they come up with lame excuses like they forgot it at their home or fish out one from their pocket saying they find it difficult to put it on due to oppressive heat," said a police officer.
Additional chief Electoral Officer Sanjay Kumar Singh said magistrates deployed at rally venues have been instructed to strictly enforce COVID-19 norms, including wearing of masks and maintaining social distancing.
"We are trying to enforce the Election Commission's guidelines to the extent possible. If someone is found deliberately trying to violate the social distancing norm, then a case will be lodged against them," he said.
He said several cases have been registered against those found violating the COVID-19 protocol but expressed his inability to share the exact number.
Reporters covering election rallies found leaders on the dais wore masks and maintained appropriate physical distance from each other, but people tumbled over one another to have a glimple of helicopters landing at the rally grounds.
A Bhagalpur report said the dais was choc-a-bloc with people at Tejashwi Yadav's public meeting at Sanokha on Tuesday.
"Right now we have to defeat Nitish Kumar. We can defeat corona later," said a supporter, and joined the chorus of "Tejashwi Yadav zindabad".
Similar was the situation at the rally of Bhojpuri singer-actor and North East Delhi's BJP lawmaker Manoj Tiwari at Sharda school compound in Kahalgaon.
BJP candidate Pawan Kumar Yadav said that many people wore masks but social distancing could not be maintained despite the circles drawn on the ground because of the heavy rush.
Nitish Kumar is addressing 4-5 rallies every day, and the situation is more or less the same.
"Corona will strike people like Lalu Prasad and his partymen who turned the state into jungle raj," said an attendee at Kumar's rally in Bhore in Gopalganj district.
Chaos prevailed at a grand alliance rally at SBJ High School in Madhepura's Bihariganj where Subhashini Yadav, daughter of socialist veteran Sharad Yadav, is in the fray on a Congress ticket.
"We will get jobs if he comes to power. Can there be a bigger issue for people like us who don't have jobs?" said a grand alliance supporter, brushing aside questions about not wearing a mask at Tejashwi Yadav's rally in Aurangabad.
There have been some instances where organisers of such rallies have been booked for violation of the COVID-19 norms.
The Gaya district administration lodged an FIR against the organisers of a rally of BJP president J P Nadda on October 11 where social distancing norms were allegedly violated. The FIR was registered on a complaint by circle officer Rajiv Ranjan.
An FIR was also registered against Sadhu Yadav, the estranged brother-in-law of RJD supremo Lalu Prasad, in Gopalganj. He is contesting on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket.
Hindustani Awam Morcha spokesman Danish Rizwan said his party was distributing sanitizers and masks among people before the rallies and also appealing to them from the dais to maintain social distancing.
"But sometimes people forget everything and try to come close to the stage leading to some pushing and shoving," he said.
Bihar had reported over 2.12 lakh COVID-19 cases till October 25. The saving grace, however, is that the state had a high recovery rate of 94.69 on Sunday.