Politics in times of the pandemic
In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections held in the sweltering heat of April-May, Lalu Prasad was at the peak of his popularity, a crowd-charmer without match in the state he ruled as chief minister.
I was on the campaign trail with him. As the chopper in which we flew from Patna circled over Samastipur, Prasad soaked his hand towel with Bisleri water to rinse his face. Seeing his starched, white-kurta drenched in sweat, I asked, “Politics is a lot of hard work; it isn’t an easy call. What keeps you going?” He pointed to the crowds below, gyrating to the chopper’s chuffs, amid clouds of dust: “Ye hai hamara indhan (that’s what fuels me on).”
The Rashtriya Janata Dal leader is in jail now in the fodder scam. The vignettes from his past juxtapose starkly with the social distancing norms likely to be in force in November in Bihar during the country’s first post-Covid-19 polls.
If the pandemic sustains, Bihar’s poll template may be replicated in the April-May elections next year in West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. A noiseless, crowd-less celebration of democracy’s biggest festival will, if it so pans out, mark a paradigm shift in these provinces with a history of mass agitations and gigantic election-time rallies.
The organisational muscle of Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian parties has been nurtured since the late 1940s by such iconic leaders as CN Annadurai, MG Ramachandran, M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa. When marching to their call, their cadres haven’t ever brooked barriers.
In contrast, the 1998-born Trinamool is a party much younger and more impetuous, taking after the temperament of its founder, the redoubtable Mamata Banerjee, serving a second term as chief minister in the state she wrested from the then mighty Communist Party of India (Marxist), which in turn, remains in power in Kerala.
These parties have a mastery over stirring up street power. Their workers are trained to draw out crowds, not observe protocols for social distancing. They will need a veritable personality transplant to follow the inhibitory rules.
“If sent to polls in October-November, Bihar will be the benchmark for other states,” said Dr V Maitreyan of the AIADMK. He foresaw, in the event of the pandemic persisting, transformative changes in campaigning patterns. The elections will be party and leader-centric, rather than candidate centric, given the inevitably greater reliance on the social and electronic media.
Maitreyan may well be right. His prognosis? The assembly polls in which local candidates traditionally got higher weightage could acquire the characteristics of parliamentary or presidential form of elections — for the public rallies or street-corner meetings where the voter got to see candidates up close may not be permitted.
Conscious of the dynamic situation, the Election Commission is studying various possibilities which include the conduct of campaign and polling as per “health” guidelines, said Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa. He agreed that contestants might have to devise their campaigns differently if the threat lasted longer.
Overwhelmed as they are by the social, clinical and administrative odds on account of the health emergency, politicians in Bihar haven’t yet applied their minds to the November elections. One among them, the Janata Dal (United)’s KC Tyagi succinctly summed up the mood: currently, religion and electoral politics are on the backburner: “Dharm band, rajniti band.”
There hasn’t been any substantial stock-taking in the Opposition ranks barring informal suggestions of a video conference, said Sharad Yadav of the RJD. He thought the prospects of timely polls in Bihar would hinge on the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition’s handling of the return and rehabilitation of natives from other states.
From wider conversations this writer had with leaders across party lines, it was evident that they were unsettled the most by the possible political implications of the human cost of Covid-19. “Assembly elections aren’t on anybody’s mind as they’re some distance away,” noted the Trinamool’s Derek O’Brien. From what he said, it seemed the Trinamool regime’s immediate concern was to have in place a mechanism to run the 100-odd civic bodies — that are crucial for fighting the virus and where elections couldn’t be held because of it.
In democracies across the world, leaders have been graded, mandated and assigned their places in history on their ability to move the masses — in death and in life. So WhatsApp cannot substitute for what exists on the ground. The hope nevertheless is that Corona too would go the way past pandemics did, returning to us the way we’ve practiced democracy.