Politics in times of corona

June 28, 2020

Politics in a pandemic is important because it comes with the promise of determining government’s responses to all problems including Covid-19 itself

People bang utensils in India to thank frontliner workers in the struggle against coronavirus. Source: hive.blog

On June 7, Amit Shah, the former president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the home minister of India, addressed a virtual rally in the eastern state of Bihar. While the scene looked like a real rally, there were no physical crowds that Shah was addressing. Instead his address was streamed live on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter attracting tens of thousands of live views. Despite BJP’s denials about the rally being connected to the upcoming State Assembly election in Bihar, this is exactly how it was viewed by the opposition and political observers. He held two more virtual rallies in Odisha and West Bengal over the next two days. The BJP’s holding of virtual rallies has started a new trend in the time of Covid-19, wherein large gatherings carry the risk of the spread of the deadly Covid-19.

The main rival of the BJP and its ally Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United (JDU) in Bihar, the Lalu Prasad Yadav-fame Rashtra Janata Dal (RJD) staged a Thaali Bajao (plate banging) protest against the rally on the same day just before the BJP’s virtual rally. Social distancing was observed in the RJD’s Thaali Bajao rally amid a ruckus of banging utensils. On the occasion, Tejashwi Yadav, the son of Lalu Prasad Yadav, called electioneering amid the Covid-19 “political vulturism.” He said rather than “helping the poor, needy and migrants, the [BJP] want[ed] to win elections even at the cost of human lives.”

Notwithstanding the political compulsions or differences of these political parties, this raises a fundamental philosophical question about electoral representation pitting human liberty in a binary against human security. The question is whether Covid-19 should put a stop to political activities, especially in developing countries where the situation of human and economic development is different from the developed countries with upcoming elections like, for instance, the United States. If yes, how long can one wait until political participation through representation can resume? What is more undemocratic: holding virtual political rallies and introducing online voting or postponing the election altogether until the situation improves? How long will it take for the situation to improve?

In this debate about whether democratic politics can wait until the situation improves, the BJP seems to have sided with the necessity of democracy rather than what we could call the doctrine of necessity, i.e., if a situation so demands, representation could wait. This does not seem to be such a bad proposition given that the BJP is in power both at the Centre and in Bihar. Moreover, the political parties are trying to adhere to safety standards against the spread of the virus, unlike, for instance, Burundi, where crowded political rallies were held prior to the general elections in May.

The same debate has taken place all over the world about the binary choice between human security and economy. The different approaches of different governments toward addressing the problem have, however, suggested that perhaps posing the binary is problematic. The two have to go hand-in-hand in the given circumstances of each individual country. In the end, the pandemic has persisted for such a long time that each country has had to find a way out and devise standard operating procedures (SOPs) for conducting economic activities during the pandemic. This can apply to democratic representation as well.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyday lives of citizens as well as economies around the world, it has also presented democracy with a fresh set of challenges.

The BJP was criticised for reportedly arranging 72,000 LED TVs in various parts of the state for the June 7 rally to be streamed live through them for the segments of the population who could not access it through their phones, laptops, etc. Criticism notwithstanding, given the dangers posed by congregations amid pandemics like Covid-19, online rallies alongside social media activism through platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter could become an essential instrument of political communication if not a norm. One could question the different levels of access of various political players to such technologies, but doesn’t it hold true also for other means of political campaigning like holding mass rallies, party conventions and media campaigns?

Perhaps, the real question about the use of modern technologies in politics is not their cost but their freedom. On one hand, the information and communication technology platforms need to remain free from the autocratic tendencies of certain personalities, institutions, or governments amid their increasing use in political discourse. On the other, they also need to be free from what could be called algorithmic bias that compartmentalises thought processes by showing what one wants to see and perpetuating polar divides and stereotypes.

While South Korea was able to hold parliamentary elections at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-April, representative democracy in states like India and Pakistan faces the problem of institutional capacity. While certain African countries have decided to postpone elections owing to the onset of the pandemic, the Election Commission of India (ECI) doesn’t seem to be going that route for the massive State Assembly election involving around 72 million voters, more than the total population of South Korea. It is still mulling whether to hold elections in the conventional way by merely increasing the numbers of polling booths and polling stations or to go for e-voting. Both options pose their own sets of challenges: increasing the number of polling booths would require a substantial increase in the number of election staff; and introducing e-voting would be a first for India raising transparency and legal challenges. Remarkably, the ECI has not indicated it is considering the easy way out of postponing the election.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyday lives of citizens as well as economies all around the world, it has also presented democracy with a fresh set of challenges. The answer in the case of democratic representation is the same as it is with the other aspects of life: it will have to learn to live with it by understanding it better to respond better. Some might argue that political representation might not be as important as economic activity. However, denial of political rights, including representation, could lead to consequences that could be even more detrimental to the spread of the virus like protest demonstrations. Politics in the time of corona is also important because it comes with the promise of determining governments’ responses to all problems including Covid-19 itself.

The writer is a research analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad

Politics in times of coronavirus