A year after lockdown: When political discourse became more acerbic, battleground shifted to virtual space

The political battleground shifted to the virtual space for much of the 12 months since March 25 when the country went into lockdown, the distance lending itself not to detachment but to a more divisive and acerbic discourse as the country fought off a pandemic.

Online press briefings and acidic Twitter wars drove the divide deeper, said political analysts as they looked back at an extraordinary year that saw the economy nosedive, people confined to their homes and joblessness for millions, including high-end executives and migrant workers, while Covid-19 continued its spread.

The tone was set on March 24, 2020 itself when Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation in the evening and announced a lockdown from midnight, setting off panic through the country with many people stuck far from home and many others ill prepared for what the days ahead would bring.

The decision came in for sharp criticism from Opposition parties such as the Congress and the Left.

Read more: Covid-19 lockdown proved inflection point for e-commerce in India

One big reason for the deeper divide was the government taking decisions to fight the pandemic unilaterally, especially in the initial phase, agreed political commentators Sanjay Kumar and Rasheed Kidwai.

Sanjay K Pandey, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and a political commentator, however, said the opposition must also share the blame for the polarising discourse as it could have played a more constructive role.

Every issue, he said, has become a confrontational one and that is not healthy for Indian politics.

“The pandemic has shown the limitations of a government (globally) and also their importance as we can see the vaccine programme on which the Indian government has done well,” he told PTI.

The government and Opposition should both stop playing politics as both are equally responsible, Pandey added.

Kumar, co-director of Lokniti, a research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said citizens want all parties to come together when the country is in a crisis. So when the lockdown was imposed, it was expected the Opposition would not be critical. Instead, Opposition parties came down heavily on the decision.

“The reason was very simple — if you remember the first lockdown, there was hardly any consultation with the Opposition parties or chief ministers. If you do a lockdown, there are various stakeholders, none of them were consulted,” he told PTI.

“Later on, when the lockdown was extended…consultation started taking place, but the damage was already done,” he said.

As the reality of Covid-19 set in, diverse opinions and societal discord over issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act went into the backburner. People began the difficult process of coming to terms with an unprecedented situation, but their political leaders continued the slugfest.

While the Opposition, led by the Congress, accused the government of negligence and reacting late to the public health crisis, the BJP-led Centre strenuously rejected the charges and asserted that the early imposition of the lockdown helped get the situation under control.

The year was punctuated by bitter wrangling on a variety of issues.

The prime minister’s ‘taali-thaali’ call to honour ‘Covid-19 warriors’ and the lighting of ‘diyas’ was attacked by several Opposition leaders, including former Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

Scenes of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres, many without any footwear, broke hearts and evoked a scathing response with Opposition leaders accusing the government of being oblivious to their plight. The Centre, however, asserted the lockdown was necessary to save lives and had been imposed with proper planning and implementation.

Read more: Plight of migrant labourers in Kodagu evokes sympathy

While Gandhi came down hard on the government for its lockdown strategy and handling of the migrant crisis, the ruling BJP accused him of doing “politics of misery” over the issue of migrants.

It was not all Covid related of course.

Who can forget the uproar in the Rajya Sabha during the passage of the contentious farm laws that led to the suspension of eight Opposition MPs for the remainder of the session.

The suspended leaders held an overnight sit-in in the Parliament complex, an episode that saw high drama with Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Harivansh bringing tea for them in the morning.

Almost every issue saw the BJP and the Opposition parties squaring off in a no-holds-barred attack and counter attack – from the Hathras rape case and the farmer protests to the package for economic recovery announced by the government and doing away with Question Hour in the Monsoon Session.

Read more: Centre must answer for ‘insult’ of ‘martyrdom’ of farmers protesting at Delhi borders

Asked if the political discourse had become more acerbic post-lockdown, Kidwai answered in the affirmative and claimed the reason was that the government decided on steps to fight the pandemic “unilaterally”.

Like in all other sectors, politics also took time to understand the magnitude of the pandemic.

With politicians unable to meet physically with the media and speak out against or for the government, they realised that online press conferences were the way forward to make themselves heard.

What followed was a slew of online press interactions, from both the Opposition and the ruling National Democratic Alliance. Online sparring through memes, tweets and posting of videos became the new normal. However, it was business as usual in the Bihar elections. Despite talk from both the NDA and the Opposition that campaigning would be digital, the reality was quite the opposite.

As the elections approached in October-November, the BJP, Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress started by holding virtual rallies. But that was short-lived. Soon, a massive physical campaign blitzkrieg began and none seemed to care about the pandemic.

Though political action did shift significantly into the virtual space post-lockdown, the Bihar polls were an example of politicians not being able to stick to the online campaign template, Kumar said.

Pandey and Kidwai agreed that the increasing trend of online and social media platforms being used for political messaging increased with the onset of the pandemic.

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