Bhopal: As many as 23 people, including 13 teachers, four Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, three Congress Party leaders, a politician’s wife, a cop and a journalist, who were engaged in the Damoh by-election in Madhya Pradesh held on April 17, have all succumbed to Covid-19.
The Damoh assembly seat fell vacant after sitting Congress MLA Rahul Lodhi joined the BJP in October 2020, one week before a battle for 28 Assembly seats in the BJP-run state.
Even as the second wave of Covid-19 was wreaking havoc with infections across the state and lockdown was imposed in the majority of the districts, Damoh was witnessing an intense election campaign with massive rallies and road shows until April 15. The nominations for the poll were filed in the last week of March.
Dozens of leaders including Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, former Chief Minister Uma Bharti, BJP state president VD Sharma, and Rajya Sabha MP Jyotiradita Scindia, took part in the campaign and held massive rallies for the BJP.
From the Congress party, former CM Digviay Singh, former Ministers and senior party leaders campaigned and former Union minister and CM Kamal Nath did a two-hour long road show on April 14.
Former CM Kamal Nath during a roadshow on April 14 in Damoh.
As a result, dozens of ministers, leaders, workers and poll officers fell prey to the virus during the poll process including Digvijaya Singh, who tested positive a day after returning from Damoh on April 16. But many like former Minister Brajendra Singh Rathore were not lucky and succumbed to the infection.
Brajendra Singh Rathore (63), former Minister of Commerce and Congress’ in-charge of the Damoh by-election, succumbed to Covid-19 on May 2 in Bhopal.
Rathore, who represented Prithvipur in the state Assembly, tested positive on April 19, two days after the polling. He was receiving treatment at a private hospital in Gwalior. But as his health deteriorated on April 24, he was airlifted to Bhopal’s Chirayu Medical College and Hospital.
He had taken the two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine on March 31 along with his wife, as per his social media post.
Similar to Rathore, Congress women’s wing state president Mandvi Chouhan (56), a local leader Gokul Patel (75), and Vandana Rai (48), who is the wife of Damoh Congress Vice President Lal Chand Rai, also died of the viral infection. Vandana had contracted the virus from her husband, said Damoh district Congress leader Manjeet Yadav.
According to Congress leader Mandvi Chouhan’s son Vikram, she had done groundwork for the party in Damoh for a week between March 20 to 25.
“She had returned with a fever, which later turned out to be COVID and 75% of her lungs was damaged. We tried our best seeking help from all senior leaders looking after her directly and ensuring she gets the best treatment, but it feels there is nothing that can save you from this virus,” said Vikram Chouhan.
As far as the BJP is concerned, the party has lost four leaders. Former Damoh district president Dev Narayan Shrivastava (52), Bina Nagar president Amrita Khatik (45), Damoh ward councilor Mahendra Rai (47) and Yuva Morcha’s Sandeep Panthi (35) had succumbed to the virus, said BJP’s Damoh media in-charge Sanjay Sen.
Apart from the political parties, 13 teachers who were on poll duty died of Covid-19, said Damoh District Education Officer (DEO) Hari Narayan Nema.
“Nearly 1,000 teachers from Damoh were appointed by the Election Commission for the poll duty. Of them, nearly 70 teachers fell prey to the virus during the poll and nearly 13 of them succumbed,” said DEO Nema. He added that the Election Commission and Education Department are still tracing the teachers who were on poll duty and contracted the virus.
“As per the laid down provisions of the School Education Department, Rs 50,000 would be given to the deceased’s family,” he said, adding that besides poll-related Covid death, 50 other teachers have also succumbed to the virus in the last couple of weeks in Damoh.
Damoh division head of the Government Teacher’s Association (GTA), Arif Anjum claimed that 17 teachers who took part in the poll have succumbed to the virus. “Many teachers were afraid before going to the poll duty but they were left with no options. Then, hundreds of them contracted the virus during the polls and 17 died due to it,” said Anjum while sharing the list of 17 teachers who died owing Covid infection on poll duty.
Holding the Election Commission and district administration accountable for the teachers’ death, the GTA demanded compensation to the deceaseds’ family considering them as a front line worker. “They were forcefully called for poll duty, no provisions were made for their safety and they contracted the virus during the poll duty and succumbed to it. Who is responsible for their deaths?” Anjum asked.
According to the state’s Daily Health bulletin, there had been a steady rise in the positive cases detected in Damoh, which grew throughout April. From 11 cases on April 1, it rose to 97 cases by mid-April, and then around 377 cases turned out to be positive on April 29--the highest single day jump. On April 16, Damoh had a total of 586 active cases, according to the daily health bulletin. But, a week after the polling, on April 23, the total active cases surged to 1,060 as Damoh started recording 130 to 150 cases every day.
Manoj Singh Rajput, who used to run a news portal name Khabarjal after quitting the post of special correspondent from a Hindi-language newspaper in Bhopal, went to report on the poll campaign in Damoh on April 10. He tested positive on returning to Bhopal on April 15 .
The 50-year-old reporter hunted for a hospital for days before he was finally admitted to Hamidia Hospital on April 25. But he succumbed to the virus on April 29, leaving behind two children and a wife who had also tested positive.
“If the Damoh election could happen after the Covid-19 pandemic, my father would still be alive. Political parties and the Election Commission don’t think about the common man,” said Ashwin Rajput, Manoj’s 24-year-old son.
Suresh Vishwakarma, a cop who was posted in Bhopal’s Bilkhiriya police station, was sent to Damoh on March 3 on VIP duty and he returned on March 10. He tested positive on April 18 after he fell down on duty. He was under treatment since then and spent Rs 22 lakh but succumbed to the virus on the intervening night of May 3-4.
After the news of the surge in Covid deaths and cases owing to the poll, reporters questioned Home Minister Narottam Mishra about the logic behind holding the election amid the deadly second wave. Mishra replied by saying that connecting Covid-19 with the elections was not logical.
“The Covid-19 has nothing to do with the elections. There is no election in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Delhi but the Covid-19 cases are skyrocketing there,” he replied.
The common people are also concerned. Kamaljeet Hurra, who runs a hardware store in Damoh, said, “These people call themselves ‘jan pratinidhi’ but they are working for only themselves. Could these by-polls not be delayed? Is there no rule in the election commission’s rule book for such an unprecedented situation?”
On April 17, Damoh by-poll saw a 59.6% voter turnout which was 15% lower as compared to the Assembly polls in 2018 with people being scared of stepping out to vote. In the results, which were declared on May 2, BJP’s Lodhi lost the seat to Congress’ Ajay Tandon by 18,000 votes.