COVID was the last thing in his mind when Prime Minister Narendra Modi bragged about attendance at one of his election rallies in West Bengal, exactly a week ago.
“….in all directions I can only see people. I have never ever witnessed such a rally. Today, you have shown your might,” Modi told a huge gathering at Asansol in West Burdwan district on April 17, the day West Bengal logged 7,713 new coronavirus cases and 34 people died of the deadly virus.
In that rally, the prime minister even rekindled the memory of a three-year-old communal riot, but did not mention once about the pandemic raging across the country.
On the same day, using a different platform, the prime minister urged for a “symbolic Kumbh” at Haridwar in view of the deteriorating COVID scenario in the country.
A day after the PM’s Asansol rally, Trinamool Congress chief and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took out a mammoth roadshow in the heart of Kolkata, where many of her supporters did not even bother to wear masks.
“Amra corona ke bhoye paayi na… Didi aache aamaader shonge (We are not scared of corona because Didi is with us),” one of the participants of the roadshow boasted before a TV camera.
Political leaders, cutting across party lines, were attending huge rallies and roadshows often without wearing masks. None other than home minister of India Amit Shah had been regularly taking part in electioneering ‘un-masked.’ He was also seen throwing flower petals at the crowd during his roadhsows in a blatant violation of all COVID-19 safety norms.
Political leaders and their supporters had thrown all caution to the wind, creating an illusionary COVID-free state, where the pandemic was not considered important enough to be an election issue.
Cut back to Friday (April 23). Modi addressed a virtual rally in the state, cancelling all his physical election rallies. He began his address saying, “Due to the COVID-19 situation in the country, I was busy in important meetings since this morning. I am now connecting with you with the help of technology.”
The pandemic is suddenly back as a central theme of political discourse in the last few remaining phases of elections in the state after being glossed over by all political parties all this while. But not before the virus took the lives of two candidates and infected several others.
Hours before the prime minister’s virtual address, the state BJP took to social media to promise free vaccination for all in Bengal. “As soon as the BJP government comes to power in West Bengal, COVID-19 vaccine will be provided free of cost to everyone,” BJP Bengal tweeted on Friday morning.
This was in response to Mamata Banerjee’s announcement a day earlier wherein she had asserted that everyone aged above 18 years of age in the state would be given free vaccines starting May 5.
“Free vaccination will start in the state from May 5 for those aged 18 years and above. We have allocated Rs 100 crore for the purchase of vaccines from the market,” chief minister said in Malda while questioning the Centre’s vaccine-pricing policy.
“The BJP shouts ‘one nation, one party, one leader’ all the time, but to save lives they can’t have one price for the vaccine,” she tweeted.
Earlier in election rallies at Chanchal in Malda and Harirampur in Dakshin Dinajpur districts, Mamata dubbed the second COVID wave as “Modi-made disaster”, pointing at nationwide shortage of oxygen, vaccines and essential drugs.
The TMC chief even went on to demand the prime minister’s resignation. “Modi babu why are medicines to treat COVID-19 not available in the market? Either take the responsibility… provide medicines and control the corona or just leave,” she said at a rally.
Banerjee also accused the Centre of discriminating against West Bengal in distribution of vaccine and supply of oxygen, a clear indication that in the remaining two-phases of elections pandemic would be the domineering theme.
Upping her COVID tirade against the BJP, Banerjee on Saturday, reiterated that the saffron party is spreading corona virus by bringing in people from other states, thus giving a new twist to the TMC-infused “outsider versus insider” debate that has been dominating this election.
To ward-off the attacks, which many BJP leaders privately admit has put the party on the back foot, the state BJP made the free-vaccine promise.
The TMC, however, was quick to dismiss it as another “false promise” of the BJP.
“The BJP’s free vaccine ‘jumla’ with two phases to go in Bengal… Remember what BJP did in Bihar? They announced during the election free vaccines…. Nothing happened… Elections finished, they forgot. Free vaccine jumla, vaccines for all in Bengal, don’t believe the BJP, don’t trust the BJP,” TMC spokesperson Derek O’Brien said in a video message.
State BJP spokesperson Jay Prakash Majumdar claimed the TMC was trying to confuse people. “The vaccine is provided free of cost at every government hospital in Bihar. We will do the same here,” he said.
Suddenly, political leaders in Bengal are now busy talking pandemic, though at times with foot in mouth.
BJP state president Dilip Ghosh claimed that only those who are weak are getting infected by the coronavirus, claiming he has “enough strength” to repel COVID-19. Incidentally, he was tested positive last year.
Clearly, our politicians have short memories.