‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’ Charles Dickens in Tale of Two Cities.
The author may have been reflecting on Britain in the mid nineteenth century but 21st century India seems trapped in its own Dickensian moment. If 2020 was the year of doom and gloom, 2021 seems to be the year when hope alternates with depression. Early year optimism that the worst was over is now rapidly descending into deepening concerns over a ‘second’ Corona wave. Covid 19 cases have climbed back up to more than one lakh a day but if you are covering the state elections you wouldn’t really know of a pandemic. The masks are off as thousands gather to poll rallies. The sadhus and devotees are in celebratory mood at the Hardwar Maha Kumbh while cricket’s annual mela, the Indian Premier League, is set to kick off in Mumbai. Ordinary citizens are being coerced into observing Covid 19 protocols and the dreaded word ‘lockdown’ is back to torment you unless you are a VVIP neta, a religious guru or a cricket star living in a bio-bubble. Not more than 50 people can be invited to a marriage but thousands can assemble for a political rally or religious jamboree. Crazy but true.
The madness doesn’t end there. Maharashtra is the worst affected Covid 19 state by far, accounting for nearly half the cases in the country. As it struggles to handle the case rise, a three party coalition government in Mumbai seems to be on a monthly ventilator. Its ‘Big Boss’, NCP leader Sharad Pawar has been admitted to hospital for a surgery barely days after reports surfaced of a clandestine dinner meeting between him and union home minister Amit Shah. This against the backdrop of charges of extortion made by a former Mumbai police commissioner against the state home minister who has finally stepped down. We don’t know what’s cooking on the political high table but surely this is the time for a unified fight against Covid and not for conspiracy theories.
You would think that the lessons of 2020 and the need to get the economy back on track would be the all-consuming endeavor of our political leadership. Well, not quite. An important budget session of parliament has been cut short because netas have to hit the campaign road. 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 BJP to win an election in Bengal that the central government is playing second fiddle to the party’s ambitions: its almost as if governance and crucial policy decisions can wait till Kolkata is conquered. Even a diplomatic outreach to Bangladesh has become an occasion for the prime minister to campaign for the Bengal elections by visiting a Matua community temple on voting day.
In tv studios, we are told by government officials that a V shaped recovery is on its way. Business leaders continue to talk up the economy. On the ground, as one travels from Kerala to Assam, the one unifying factor is the visible economic distress, especially amongst those working in the vast unorganized sector. As Rajiv Bajaj, one of the few outspoken industrialists puts it, “We seem concerned with BSE and NSE but who will be concerned with MSMEs?”
In difficult Covid times, fuel prices are up, jobs have been lost and incomes have shrunk across working class groups. Every political party is promising to put more cash in the hands of beneficiaries of government welfare programmes but the dominant BJP narrative on the campaign trail is once again about religion and Hindu-Muslim divides. In Assam, the bearded perfume merchant MP Badruddin Ajmal is the ‘enemy’ figure for the BJP, while in Kerala the rhetoric of ‘love jehad’ and Sabarimala, of Hindu traditions, Muslim appeasement and Church assertion threatens decades of relative harmony. In Bengal, religious polarization has been taken to such a fever pitch that chief minister Mamata Banerjee was compelled to reveal her ‘gotra’ and recite the Chandi Path. The one state relatively free of the religion card is Tamil Nadu but that’s perhaps because Muslims are not significant enough here to make a difference at election time.
If the BJP is determinedly pursuing its ‘opposition-mukt’ Bharat agenda, then the opposition too isn’t helping its own cause. The Congress lacking a full-time party president is desperately looking to Rahul Gandhi to deliver votes and win it a state or two. Gandhi has even shown us his deep sea diving and aikido skills in this election but we still don’t know if he really wants to take up a 24 x 7 responsibility as party chief. His sister, Priyanka too has joined the campaign this time but her future role is also uncertain. The Congress is a party in pause mode, hoping for resurrection more by luck than planning.
In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s persona is the core issue, the self-proclaimed ‘Bengal Tigress’ taking on the ‘outsiders’ from Gujarat. She has been aggressively campaigning on a wheel-chair after claiming to have fractured her foot in an ‘attack’. Most sportspersons would take weeks to recover from a fractured foot but elections have miraculous healing abilities. Was the injury ‘doctored’ to attract sympathy? Only Didi knows.
And in the midst of the spiraling poll madness around us, we have the Election Commission under the scanner. Supposedly a neutral umpire but increasingly looking like a twelfth 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. Even when it does act against a BJP strongman like Himanta Biswa Sarma, the penalty is quickly withdrawn. Level playing field? Well, not really.
By the way, farmers in several parts of north India are still agitating and demanding that the farm laws be withdrawn. Their agitation has been on for more than four months now. Surprisingly, we don’t hear of rising Covid cases amongst the farm community even as those in Mumbai’s high rises bear the brunt. Is the kisaan more immune to the virus than the sharp-suited Indian? Maybe, maybe not: in the India of 2021 ‘kuch bhi ho sakta hai!’ (anything can happen)
Post-script: The politics of the bizarre is also heavily laced with hypocrisy. For example, BJP leaders at the Centre advocate a nationwide beef ban. In Kerala, the local BJP leadership says people are free to eat what they wish. Maybe, the Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi was right after all: the cow for some is ‘Mummy’ in UP, yummy in Kerala! Yeh hai ‘new’ India!