Column | Politics in the time of COVID-19

Column | Politics in the time of COVID-19
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Politicians are going through an extraordinary situation in which they are not even allowed to shake hands with the public. Even Members of Parliament are in self-declared isolation, odd for a class of people who thrive in public interaction. The culture of vocal politics in Kerala that often manifested in human chains has taken up a new motto: “Break the chain”.

Any agitation is rated by the size of the crowd it draws. Yet the DYFI, the youth association of the ruling CPM, decided to limit the number of participants to five when it organised a protest against the increase of fuel and excise duties by the central government just before the lockdown was declared.

Political associations nowadays compete in charitable activities, not agitations. The ruling Left Democratic Front, the opposition United Democratic Front, the BJP and other parties are busy volunteering in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. The coronavirus has changed the priorities of politics.

The Kuttanad assembly constituency was getting ready for a byelection after the death of Thomas Chandy MLA, but the contagion has brought in so much uncertainty. Even the local body elections have taken a backseat for all political parties. The most disappointed, perhaps, is K Surendran, who had plans to energise the BJP’s Kerala unit after taking over as its president recently. The party had to cancel the reception programmes organised to herald the selection of the new leader.

Shafi Parambil, who was anointed as the president of the Youth Congress, is busy finding a place for the organisation in the youth army the government has formed. Activists send each other on WhatsApp only coronavirus-related forwards, for want of any public functions. Even former chief minister Oommen Chandy is stuck in Thiruvananthapuram, unable to go home in Puthuppally, because of the lockdown.

Changing course

Epidemics have a history of changing the course of nations. The CPM is fully aware of the gravity of the situation, as reflected by the government’s resolve to handle the emergency situation. Even the World Health Organisation has warned that epidemics can bring in political and economic instability in their wake. They could even lead to increased violence and crime after a point. The government views the agitation by migrant labourers in Payippad in this light.

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The government has ordered the distribution of rice and groceries through public distribution system to both ‘below poverty line’ and ‘above poverty line’ sections because a shortage of food supplies could lead to law and order problems.

A government would be rocked when it becomes helpless in meeting the needs of the people. That truism is behind the enthusiastic drive to pour in money to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund.

Shadow fight

The opposition wants to be a corrective force even as it cooperates with the government, as indicated by the press conference of opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala. It was a departure from Chennithala’s softened stance ever since his earlier barb against Health Minister K K Shailaja – that she had “media mania” – backfired.

Shailaja, on her part, is keeping a low profile, partly because she does not want to antagonise the opposition and partly because she does not want to be seen as a leader taller than the chief minister. Some quarters even hailed her as the future chief minister for her commendable efforts in tackling the outbreak. As a central committee member of the CPM, she is fully aware of the predicament of K R Gauri.

Right now, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is in full control. The opposition knows all too well situation and its consequences. The state government has promised to work in tandem with the central government yet it has sent out hidden messages by declaring a financial package on the day the prime minister called for a Janata Curfew. The state also put its foot down by extending the centre-dictated lockdown in selected districts by a day.

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