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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”: Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. The author’s reflections on France and Britain in the mid-19th century now echo in 21st-century India, trapped as we are in our Dickensian moment. If 2020 was the year of doom and gloom, 2021 is where hope alternates with despair in surreal discomfort. Early year optimism that the worst was over has descended into deepening concerns over a second Covid-19 wave.
Covid-19 cases have climbed to more than 100,000 a day, but if you are covering the state elections, you wouldn’t know that a pandemic was on. The masks are off as thousands gather at rallies. Lockdown rules and severe penalties are in place for the ordinary citizen, but devotees are in a celebratory mood at the Haridwar Maha Kumbh while cricket’s annual mela, the Indian Premier League, is set to kick off in Mumbai. Not more than 50 people can be invited to a wedding, but no Covid-19 protocols seem to apply to political rallies and religious gatherings. Crazy but true.
Maharashtra is the worst-affected Covid-19 state, but is also racked by political instability with the coalition government in Mumbai on a monthly ventilator. Its “Big Boss”, Sharad Pawar, was admitted to hospital for a surgery, barely days after reports surfaced of a clandestine dinner meeting between him and Union home minister Amit Shah in the backdrop of extortion charges made by a former Mumbai police commissioner against the state home minister who has finally stepped down.
It gets worse. The Union health ministry and the Maharashtra government are in an ugly face-off over vaccines. The claim that the state isn’t getting enough vaccines is a product of bureaucratic red tape, but so great is the trust deficit between Delhi and Mumbai that the fracas is hardly surprising.
Caught in the middle are anxious citizens queuing up at vaccination centres. Many netas, by virtue of age or other health conditions, have got their vaccinations; the lesser mortals must wait their turn.
Amid the wrangling, surely, one big lesson of 2020 is the need for the political leadership to focus on better Covid-19 management and get the economy back on track.
Sadly, it’s a lesson unlearnt. An important budget session of Parliament was cut short because netas had to hit the campaign trail. Most Union ministers aren’t in their offices, but instead have been assigned specific districts in Bengal to handle. Such is the obsessive desire of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win Bengal that the central government is playing second fiddle to the party’s ambitions; it’s almost as if governance and crucial policy decisions can wait till Kolkata is conquered.
In television studios, we are told that a V-shaped recovery is on its way, but, on the ground, as one travels from Kerala to Assam, the one unifying factor is visible economic distress, especially among those in the unorganised sector. Jobs have been lost, incomes have shrunk, fuel prices have risen, but the dominant narrative on the campaign trail is once again about religion and the Hindu-Muslim divide. In Assam, the “pro-migrant” Badruddin Ajmal is the “enemy” figure, while in Kerala the rhetoric of “love jihad”, Sabarimala, Hindu traditions, Muslim appeasement and Church assertion now threatens decades of harmony. In Bengal, the religious polarisation has become so acute that chief minister Mamata Banerjee revealed her gotra and recited the Chandi Path. The one state relatively free of the religion card is Tamil Nadu but that’s perhaps because the number of Muslims is not significant enough here to make a difference at election time.
And in the midst of the spiralling poll insanity around us, the Election Commission’s role is coming under the scanner. The body is supposed to be a neutral umpire but there are allegations that it is increasingly looking like a 12th man for the ruling party at the Centre — ready to show a red card to the Opposition but hesitant to blow the whistle when the BJP plays foul. These allegations are fuelled by its own actions: Even when it did act against BJP strongman Himanta Biswa Sarma, the penalty was quickly diluted.
Meanwhile, farmers are still agitating and demanding that the farm laws be withdrawn. Their agitation has been on for at least four months now. Surprisingly, we don’t hear of rising Covid-19 cases in the farm community — though experts warn of its potential to be a super-spreader event, especially given the rising cases in Punjab — even as those in Mumbai’s high-rises bear the brunt. Is the battle-hardened kisan more immune to the virus than the sharp-suited Indian? May be, may be not: in the India of 2021, kuch bhi ho sakta hai (anything can happen).
Post-script: Whether India’s farmers are Covid-19 proof or not, netas sure think they are. On the campaign trail in Assam, Sarma, who is also the state’s health minister, has refused to wear a mask. When asked why, he brazened it out: “There is no corona in Assam.” Another neta offers us an even better one-liner when we ask him why he doesn’t wear a mask on a roadshow. “Please, understand, people have gathered here to see me, not you. How can they see me properly if I wear a mask?”
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal