How a pandemic is changing the contours of politics

The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown it has effected have silenced all the political buzz, putting brakes on any kind of congregation, and making physical rallies, protests or campaigns nearly impossible

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Just a few months ago, the country was in the thick of a raging anti-CAA agitation. Rewind your memory a little further and you would remember the massive campaigns for Lok Sabha and Assembly elections – giant rallies, cavalcades of star campaigners rolling past busy roads, fiery speeches on public grounds and more. The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown it has effected have silenced all the political buzz, putting brakes on any kind of congregation, and making physical rallies, protests or campaigns nearly impossible.

But has it brought political activities to a standstill?

The reaction is mixed. While parties have taken the challenge in their stride, scouting for new ways to touch base with the public, there have also been allegations that the lockdown has not only slowed down the political machinery but also silenced dissent.

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Journalist and political analyst R Rangraj says the pandemic has crippled the political system, giving the central government a free hand to introduce policy changes. “Labour laws that have taken hundreds of years to be enacted are being done away with. The public sector is being handed over to private companies. But the hands of political parties and labour unions are tied due to the lockdown. These issues are enough to bring people to the streets, but can you imagine something like Chennai’s Jallikattu protests in the current situation?” he says.

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M B Rajesh, former MP and CPI(M) leader from Kerala, says apart from being a tool to muzzle dissent, the lockdown has helped the Centre centralise power and use it as a cover for introducing economic reforms and sabotaging difference of opinions.

“It is the state governments who are in the frontline of the war against COVID-19, but the Centre is offering help under conditions. For instance, the government assures to increase the borrowing limit for states from 3 per cent to 5 per cent, only if they privatise power sector. This is nothing but an authoritarian tendency,” he says.

The good, bad and the ugly

On the state level, there are allegations that while the pandemic has given immunity to ruling party leaders to do as they please, it has limited the movement and political scope of opposition party leaders, even triggering a blame game between the state government and opposition in several states.

“Take the AIADMK for instance. Ruling party MLAs were free to distribute COVID-19 relief, but the government warned of legal action when other parties including the DMK started doing it,” says Rangaraj. After facing backlash, the Tamil Nadu government later clarified that those wanting to distribute relief could do so with the help of the district administration.

Some ruling party politicians, on the other hand, have blatantly flouted COVID-19 protocol, he says, citing the example of Union minister Sadananda Gowda. The minister kicked off a storm when he dodged quarantine on arrival from Delhi by a flight and defended the act by saying he was in “exempted category” as he was in charge of the pharmaceutical sector, which comes under essential supplies. Coming to his rescue, the BJP-ruled Karnataka government on May 23, issued an addendum to its May 22 guidelines, exempting state and Union ministers from institutional quarantine for fliers.

Gowda, however, went into self-quarantine after a rap from the PMO.

Decisions on the lockdown also threatened to drive a wedge between the Shiv Sena and NCP in Maharashtra, which has the most number of cases in the country.

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The humanitarian crisis caused by the pandemic has helped regional governments in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha and Rajasthan to consolidate their rule. A moribund Congress at the national level showed signs of activity by taking up the issue of migrants head on to footing the bill of their train journey home to pulling up the central government on the state of the economy either through debates or campaigns.

“The pandemic has certainly given Congress leaders an avenue to reach out to migrants and the urban poor. The general engagement of party cadres has changed. They are more mobilised. True, we want to be in power or hold ministries. But we all are in politics to do public service. And the pandemic has made us all rise to the occasion,” says Lakshmi Ramachandran, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Mahila Congress.

Polls campaigning? Not a problem

The vacuum in mass-related activities, however, is said to be giving jitters to parties in poll-bound states. While Bihar is scheduled to have Assembly elections in October-November, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Puducherry and Kerala will go to polls in 2021.

Under the current situation, when the country has reported a fourth of its COVID-19 cases in just the first week of June, rallies or door-to-door campaigns will be out of the question. Even if the election commission declares the dates, conducting the polls while ensuring social distancing will be a herculean task, say experts.

However, Bihar-based political analyst Dr Nawal Kishor Chaudhary says voters vote based on leadership than elections campaigns.

“Political campaigns have a marginal role to play in elections. Public perception of leadership and governance are the things that matter the most. Log neta ko dekhte hain (people look at the leader) and as far as Bihar is concerned, right now there is no alternative to Nitish Kumar,” he says.

Chaudhary, however, says the problem of migrants is more of a development-related issue and it is caste and communal politics that define voters in Bihar.

“Would Muslims have voted for BJP if COVID-19 weren’t there?” he says.

But, how will the JD(U)-BJP alliance reach its voters including the 20 lakh migrants, a chunk of whom walked to Bihar from as far as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu? The influx will add to the existing unemployment rate (46.6 per cent according to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy survey) in the state.

Bihar BJP spokesperson Nikhil Anand says the party is in constant touch with people in the grassroots including migrant labourers.

“Our leaders at the Centre, state, mandal and districts interact with one another on a regular basis to mobilise people at the booth level. For example, the May 31 episode of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann Ki Baat was aired in almost 60,000 of 72,000 booths in Bihar. These are purely localised programmes and people who attended strictly followed social distancing and COVID-19 norms. Every booth has a seven-member committee called Saptrishis who do the coordination for these programmes,” he says.

Anand says the ‘Bihar Jansamwad’ rally, the first virtual rally by the BJP on Sunday (June 7), organised in a similar way, reached more than a crore viewers who watched it on various online platforms.

As far as migrants are concerned, he says the government apart from providing monetary help and subsidised food is planning to “accommodate 10 lakh people with jobs.”

Social media the new medium

The pandemic has also sent parties looking for newer avenues to reach out to people. While Home Minister Amit Shah flagged it off on a large scale through his virtual rallies in Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal, other parties may follow suit.

For internal meetings and discussions, parties have switched to video calling platforms like Zoom and closed WhatsApp groups. Facebook Live, on the other hand, has replaced public meetings, which politicos say has a wider reach although it lacks the tactile feel of a gathering.

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“I attended my last public meeting on March 7. But we have since switched to online meetings. I recently attended a meeting in the United Kingdom through Facebook Live,” says Rajesh. “The positive thing about online meetings is that you can access more people. While the attendance of 1,000 people in a small public meet is a decent number, the same is between 25,000 and 60,000 on an online platform,” he says.

Rajesh says his party is prepared to acclimatise itself to the new normal of reaching out to people.

But what about remote areas where people can’t afford a mobile phone, let alone an internet connection. Lakshmi says there is a lot of brainstorming happening to reach out to people in inaccessible areas through the digital medium, but everything is still in an early stage.

“Nobody knows exactly how to go about it. It is all going to be very experimental,” she adds.

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