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In India, Modi and others take a Covid-19 shot at elections

Thiruvananthapuram - Opposition parties have criticised the PM’s use of “electoral messaging” in the time of vaccination.

By R. Krishnakumar

Published: Sun 7 Mar 2021, 2:26 PM

Last updated: Sun 7 Mar 2021, 2:28 PM

Two days after the Election Commission of India announced the schedule for Assembly elections in four states and a Union Territory, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was being lauded, and criticised from some quarters, in a typically polarised response to political optics around a Covid-19 vaccine shot he took.

In the poll-bound southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s principal opposition party – the Congress – is drawing a similarly polarised, but less intense, response to his campaigning style. Gandhi, an MP from Wayanad in Kerala, made a splash swimming with fishermen in Kollam and speaking about seeing their difficulties first-hand. At Kanyakumari in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, he appeared to be building on this fit-and-ready narrative when he did push-ups in front of cheering school children.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on another attempt to win voters in the two states that have remained largely untouched by the party’s big surge since the 2014 general election.

For the Congress, Kerala is critical because at the national stage, the party is grappling with defections to the BJP and a leadership crisis it chooses not to discuss. Pre-poll surveys are backing the CPI(M)-led Left under Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to retain power in the state even as the opposition Congress is hoping for a familiar anti-incumbency swing.

In West Bengal, the BJP takes on a regional power – the Trinamool Congress – in a straight fight and is reported to have developed social media campaigns pegged to identity politics.

The elections across the four states and the UT are fought on diverse planks. The campaigns have been tailored for local consumption but in a polarised polity, when it is increasingly accepted that elections are won and lost on social media, leaders – and the strategists backstage – appear to choose symbolism and personal appeal over issue-based engagements with the voter. In a battle of perceptions, they need their promises dressed up, their star wattage reinforced in viral hashtags and their key ideological battles reduced to accessible, us vs them narratives.

Leaders of the opposition parties have criticised the PM’s use of “electoral messaging” in the time of vaccination – he wore a traditional gamcha (towel) from Assam and the nurses who administered the vaccine were from Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry. Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Puducherry are set for Assembly elections in March and April. Vaccination certificates carrying the photograph of the Prime Minister have also set off controversy.

India’s Health Ministry said about 25 lakh people registered on the first day of the country’s second phase of Covid-19 vaccination. Modi who took the first dose of the indigenously developed Covaxin, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) on Monday, has since found praise for leading by example. AIIMS chief Dr Randeep Guleria was among those who said the PM taking the jab on the first day of the rollout was important as it could remove any doubts the public had on the vaccine.

Social media played by type; the debates were polarised and steered by whataboutery. The laudatory tweets were countered with criticism against a personality cult being built on photo ops and a brand of symbolism that is running short on nuance.

The talk around the PM and poll-time optics also draws on the latest episode of Mann ki baat, Modi’s monthly radio programme, in which he said he regretted having not learnt Tamil, “the world’s oldest language”. The BJP has been trying to customise its political narratives for Tamil Nadu where perceptions about the party’s north Indian ethos have continued to limit its electoral presence.

The state BJP leadership has commenced talks regarding the sharing of seats for the April 6 election, with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, one of the two dominant regional parties which is in power in the state. The Congress is in an electoral alliance with the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

In Tamil Nadu, where neither the BJP nor the Congress has a formidable local leadership, the parties should not mind hosting national leaders who could hit headlines on poll pages typically dominated by the two Dravidian parties. The optics can’t work everywhere; Vijayan was dismissive of Gandhi’s deep-sea swim, calling him a “tourist” and saying the Congress leader did not quite understand the waters of Kerala. That, however, could be a risk worth taking, considering the returns – two days of media traction, without directly taking on the Left government over an alleged deep sea fishing contract with a US-based company.

You do have the choice to look at Modi’s vaccine shot as a regular, even perfunctory, statement that is in line with what heads of state do to inspire the public before a mass vaccination drive of this proportion is rolled out. The choice, however, is a difficult one to make because on social media, you are encouraged to see in binaries. The symbolism is, at once, decoded as a smart, timely outreach ahead of the election and as misplaced, crude showmanship.

The extreme reactions – “he didn’t take the VIP route to the hospital” to “why isn’t he wearing a mask?” – are on expected lines but they also reflect an overstated strategic importance that we attach to symbolism as adopted by political leaders. Can the symbolism in political, specifically electoral, messaging replace the discourse of development and inclusiveness? The narratives scripted around Modi’s vaccine shot also reveal a patronising take we have on the masses. In validating, or deriding, the optics, we are also stating that optics and grandstanding leaders are enough for many of us to make that decisive political choice.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in India

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

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