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By Adarsh Sharma
“Social distancing se hi hum ise hara sakte hain…2 feet ki doori mask hai zaruri…(Social distancing can only help us defeat this virus and a minimum of 2 feet distancing coupled with a mask is imperative for our survival) is advised by the PM in his message to the nation with the common man at large baffled by the scenes of his election rally the next morning! “You must first learn to practice what you preach”, says an agitated sports enthusiast, Saurav Yadav, who battled Corona during its first phase last year. “Sab dikhawa hai, ye sab vote ke bhookhe hain.. bhashan do vote lo bus yehi kaam hai” cries Manish Tiwari, a driver by profession who lost his brother-in-law in 2020. The pain and trauma are the same for millions of infected people who find absolutely no substance behind these void safety messages circulated by one and all in power. Political parties across the spectrum have failed to instil the faith and resolve to fight against this deadly virus largely through their actions on the ground. Holding mammoth election rallies, roadshows and religious gatherings to woo the electorate across states going into elections has further aggravated the negative sentiments for all the political parties across almost all social media platforms.
“The government is only interested in our votes, they are least bothered about our well-being, it seems our vote is far more important than our lives”, is the underlying sentiment shared by many, says Chandni Dewan, a banker by profession. “Why can’t the Election Commission or the parties themselves postpone these elections? Why can’t they just wait till things get back to normal?” asks Mayank Gubrele, an IT professional. People like Mayank & Chandni are probably echoing the concerns of the population at large, but why is it that political parties with elaborate digital media infrastructure and strategists fail to gauge the sentiments like these? Why is it that Parties like BJP, TMC, AAP, Congress and others with dedicated social media cells and teams fail to acknowledge the gravity of the situation? Why is it that courts have to intervene and remind the elected representatives and governments of their duties and responsibilities? Or is it simply not possible to halt or postpone the elections or events of mass gathering in the present menacing scenario?
Democratic elections, by the very nature of it, is extremely challenging to be held amidst the spread of an infectious disease like Covid-21. Not only do elections require intense public interaction and mass communication but meticulous planning, preparation and execution at every level. It is in no way a day’s, week’s or a month’s exercise, from Election Commission to political parties from probable candidates to the confirmed ones everyone gets involved at least 2-3 years in advance, before the culmination of the prevailing term. From mobilising task force to devising election strategy from allocating and arranging funds to hiring election strategists the cost to the exchequer is huge. The question, therefore, is why can’t the same machinery utilise its power to prepare and combat a pandemic like this? Is it the lack of will or sheer negligence on their part? To answer this, let us try and understand the modus operandi of election expenditure at the grassroots level.
Almost all the promotional activities including rallies, media campaigns, roadshows, marketing collaterals (caps, badges, banners, posters et al) are executed on 100% advance payments. Such is the credibility of payments that none of the vendors agrees to even a day’s credit period. “Bhaiyya kaun jeetega kaun harega kaun jaane ek baar election khatam paisa hajam, fir koi nahi sunta isliye sab paisa pehle lena padta hai,” says Ram Kishor (name changed on request), owner of a small printing unit at Delhi. “We agree to execute any Radio or TV ad campaign only on the realisation of 100% advance payments, when it comes to election campaigns. We can’t afford even a day’s credit to any political party,” shares Mr Rajat Kapoor, owner of an advertising agency in Gurugram. “To mobilise the karyakartas on the ground, we need to pamper them with a lot of stuff which requires hard cash and other things, sab kuch mahino pehle se karna padta hai,” shares a party worker responsible for looking into arrangements at the booth level.
The money is allocated and distributed well in advance to manage every aspect of election promotions, mostly in cash. Once it is done and all set there’s very little possibility to step back. The funding procedures and donations received by the political parties are still as clear as our understanding of the “existence of life elsewhere in the universe” and the expenses incurred on the overall election campaign are way too high to let go of. Besides, most of the candidates who manage to get tickets further put pressure on their respective parties to go ahead with the process of elections as their pockets are limited and they can ill-afford the postponement. All this combined together makes it difficult for well-prepared political parties to step back and almost impossible when they can sniff a possible victory. The tenacity to continue with their scheduled promotional activities during unprecedented times, when the pandemic is at its peak, does more harm than good to the overall image of the leader and its party. Parties enjoying a favourable position over their competitors often tend to neglect or overlook the brewing undercurrents within the masses outside the circumference of their battle zone.
In the words of a famous election strategist, “elections are all about creating a wave of emotions and setting a narrative”, and it is precisely due to this reason that parties don’t want to break the momentum and carry on with their scheduled programmes irrespective of the stringent guidelines set by the Election Commission. People often criticise the governments citing violations of their fundamental rights but turn completely ignorant of their “duties” in times of need. The same constitution which has given us immense “rights” as the citizens also expects us to perform our “duties” towards the nation. With people willing to flout every norm and keen on supporting their political idols irrespective of the pandemic, the role of an independent body like the EC becomes all the more important. It is indeed for times like these the commission was showered with powers to control the uncontrollable(s).
There’s no denying the fact that the uninterrupted conduct of elections, even during prevalent testing times, is essential for democracies to sustain and thrive. But, elections in a demographically large democracy like India demands vibrant, at times chaotic, political interaction and mass mobilisation on a large scale, the pandemic situation not only makes it immensely challenging but has created havoc in terms of the ever-increasing number of Covid positive cases in poll-bound states. With existing average and poorly maintained medical infrastructure, governments across states and at the centre could ill afford any negligence and that is sadly what has happened. The political parties are guilty of continuing with their promotional campaigns in the middle of a raging pandemic. West Bengal is already showing a huge spike in the number of fresh cases following huge rallies by various political parties. Assam has not shown any significant increase, probably because there were only around 500 plus active cases in the entire state during the time rallies were held. The people attending those mega shows are equally responsible for spreading the virus, for even if they were least bothered about what’s happening around them, they have put lakhs who came in contact with them at risk! The hard lessons and incidences of history, such as the influenza pandemic spread across Europe between 1831 to 1837 or 1918 Spanish flu influenza pandemic which killed over 50 million people in three waves have completely been ignored and obviously, no lessons learnt. If only the time taken by the political fraternity to prepare for these elections was utilised in setting up the required medical infrastructure, given the threat that was looming large over our country, the situation on the ground would have been completely different. Mankind though has always managed to come out as victors but with over 1.5 years gone by and Covid-21 challenging us with full fervour and attacking us vigorously this indeed seems to be the real test of Power!
All the opinion and exit polls have already failed to predict its outcome so far, all eyes now set on the final outcome.
(The author is an advertising & marketing professional with over 15+ years of experience in offering customised marketing & media solutions to brands and political parties across India. Views expressed are personal.)