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Opposition seems to have lost its sting during pandemic, but the ruling party is consolidating its base

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Pradyut Bordoloi and Gaurav Gogoi, members of Parliament from Assam, failed to catch the last flight from Delhi to Guwahati on March 24. Until the previous day, both the Congress MPs were present in the Lok Sabha for the budget session. And neither of them had an inkling that a nationwide lockdown was in the offing, something that came at a four-hour notice.

Fast forward two months later to May 25. As domestic flights resumed operations, both the MPs rushed to their constituencies — Nagaon and Kaliabor, respectively. But Covid-19 protocols, as devised by the government of Assam, mandated that they take swab tests and go from the airport to a hotel for institutional quarantine.

“When we were all stuck in Delhi during peak lockdown, the chief minister of Assam (Sarbananda Sonowal) sent a chartered flight to bring back the BJP MPs. They all landed in Guwahati and reached their respective constituencies by road. None of them was quarantined. Covid rules are applicable only to the opposition,” Bordoloi tells ET Magazine over the phone.

Opposition-only Covid rules, as alleged by Bordoloi, could be an exaggeration, but the pandemic has indeed opened a window of opportunity for the ruling party to consolidate its base even as opposition parties are struggling due to rampant Covid restrictions.

Political rallies and mass protests — often considered a lifeline for the Opposition — are now forbidden or impossible as the virus has forced everyone to either stay indoors or maintain social distancing in public places. In Kerala, the high court on Wednesday banned political protests in public places until July 31. Even as India has been unlocking in a phased manner, localised lockdowns, weekend stay-at-home orders and night curfews have disrupted the opposition parties’ political planning.

In contrast, government agencies have been operating from Day 1 of the lockdown. Though the inept handling of the migrant crisis dented the popularity of the ruling BJP at the Centre, the damage can be offset by its concerted pro-poor drive: the distribution of 24 crore food packets, monthly free ration to 80 crore individuals from the Centre’s coffers as well as a transfer of Rs. 500 a month to every woman who has a Jan Dhan account. Other parties can have advantages in states where they rule. In Kerala, the ruling Left Democratic Front, for instance, has showcased its administrative prowess in containing the pandemic. But even in states the numbers are skewed in favour of the BJP which, with its allies, rule 16 of them. The Congress rules only three and is a partner in the Maharashtra government.

Senior BJP leader and Union Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi agrees that his party’s political activities have surged since the lockdown began, adding that no one has stopped the Congress from pursuing a similar programme. “Whether it is providing food to the needy, holding virtual rallies or undertaking a door-to-door mass contact programme, our political activities have only increased during the Covid period. The Congress could also have done that. But their attitude has remained irresponsible and suicidal,” says Naqvi, adding that its leader Rahul Gandhi has used the lockdown period to be “an economist, a security expert and an astrologer on Covid cases”.

Since March, the Congress has lost Madhya Pradesh after Jyotiraditya Scindia defected to the BJP with 22 loyal MLAs, and now in Rajasthan, the party is practically split after Sachin Pilot revolted and was subsequently sacked as deputy CM and state party president. The only reversal the BJP faced was in Manipur where a coalition government led by N Biren Singh was reduced to a minority one last month. But prompt politicking — four recalcitrant MLAs of its ally NPP were brought to Delhi to have a meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah — resolved the crisis.

The big question now is how will the ruling and opposition parties campaign once the Election Commission announces the polling dates for by-elections in 24 assembly segments in Madhya Pradesh and for the critical assembly election in Bihar, the nomination process for which will likely begin in September.

So far, South Korea has been a role model in conducting a large election during the pandemic. The campaign was largely conducted digitally. In the April 15 elections in the East Asian nation, voters had to mandatorily wear masks, maintain social distancing, and those having a body temperature of over 99.5 degree Fahrenheit were taken to separate booths for voting.

The result? The Left-leaning ruling party, Democratic Party, with a smaller ally, clinched a landslide victory with the biggest majority since 1987, the year the nation transitioned into a democracy.

Former Chief Election Commissioner of India, OP Rawat, says India can follow only a modified form of South Korean model to conduct elections. A digitalonly campaign won¡¦t work in India, he says. India needs to ensure a level-playing field for the ruling and opposition parties.

“According to an estimate, about 55 crore out of 90 crore voters in India still don’t have mobile connectivity. Let’s not go by the number of connections. In digital-only election campaigns, the majority of Indian voters will find it difficult to make an informed choice,” he says, adding that the government should buy time slots in private television channels and FM radio stations and allot those to political parties on the basis of their performance in the last elections, so as to make the Covidtime election process fair.

Now, over to Bihar in autumn.

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