Prime Minister Narendra Modi, campaigning in Bengal on Saturday, raised a few eyebrows after he seemed to praise the large crowd at his rally in Asansol - on a day India reported a record 2.34 lakh new Covid cases and the active caseload spiked to an all-time high of 16.8 lakh.
"I have come here twice during Lok Sabha elections. Last time I came to seek votes for Babulji (Union Minister Babul Supriyo, who is the Asansol MP). The first time I came for myself. But the crowd was only a quarter of this size..." he said.
"... but today, in all directions I see huge crowds of people... have witnessed such a rally for the first time... Today, you have shown your power. The next step is more important - go and vote and take others also," Prime Minister Modi added.
Asansol votes on April 26 - the seventh of the eight phases of the Bengal Assembly election.
The opposition has been questioning the PM's continued active involvement in election rallies as the country battles a deadly second wave of infections.
In an apparent dig at the Prime Minister and other political leaders campaigning for the state elections, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi this morning tweeted in Hindi: "This is also the first time when such huge crowds of sick people and record number of deaths have been seen."
On Saturday sources said Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray was unable to speak to the Prime Minister - to discuss the supply of oxygen - because he was in Bengal.
The Chief Minister's concerns were addressed by Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan.
The Congress posted a two-and-a-half-minute video on Twitter criticising the Prime Minister for "prioritising his campaigning during a pandemic like (Emperor) Nero fiddling while Rome burned".
The fact is, to Star Campaigner Narendra Modi, Indians are nothing more than the votes they can give him. pic.twitter.com/wAWFQA5lIb— Congress (@INCIndia) April 17, 2021
Large crowds at election rallies by major political parties - including the BJP, the Congress, and the Bengal's ruling Trinamool - where social distancing is absent are being viewed with increasingly greater concern by experts, particularly with more aggressive variants of the virus in circulation.
This morning the Prime Minister asked those celebrating the Kumbh in Haridwar - where hundreds of thousands of devotees - many without face masks - crowding together to take a dip in the Ganga has led to warnings of a 'super spreader' event - to do so in a "symbolic" manner.
Visuals from roadshows held by Home Minister Amit Shah and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee show thousands, many without face masks and standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Authorities tasked with enforcing distance are often helpless given the volatile nature of the crowds.
Home Minister Amit Shah holds roadshow in Bengal's Medinipur ahead of upcoming Assembly Elections (ANI) #WestBengalElections2021pic.twitter.com/i797qQEZ1e— NDTV (@ndtv) March 23, 2021
While announcing polling dates back in February, the Election Commission said parties organising rallies or events had to ensure participants followed Covid safety protocols.
That was re-emphasised Thursday, when the poll body referred to several instances "wherein norms of social distancing, wearing of masks have been flouted in blatant" in disregard of its rules.
The Commission also altered the rules, disallowing campaigning between 7 pm and 10 am, and increasing the 'silence period' to 72 hours from the usual 48, for all remaining phases.
Ahead of today's rallies, the BJP said it had been taking measures to ensure social distancing and use of masks; party sources told news agency PTI chairs were placed some distance apart.
The party's IT Cell chief tweeted a video on Saturday morning - ostensibly from one of Prime Minister's rallies in Bengal, where thousands of people can often be seen standing, that showed people wearing masks and sitting on spaced-out chairs.
Social distancing and masks across Prime Minister Modi's rallies in Bengal...#Vote4AsolPoribortonpic.twitter.com/ZFj2lweryV— Amit Malviya (@amitmalviya) April 17, 2021
Separately, the centre has linked the spike in cases to people's failure to follow Covid protocols.
With inputs from PTI