The Election Commission of India’s threat to ban political rallies on the grounds of Covid-inappropriate behaviour has come a little late in the day. In the scramble to restore democratic processes and civil liberties, India opened the door to a fresh wave of the pandemic.
Those who levelled accusations of governmental overreach when the nation-wide lockdown was imposed last year are either silent or have done a U-turn, urging the Centre to levy severe penalties for violation of Covid-19 protocols. The same pundits had inveighed against the political executive for clamping down on fundamental rights, and against the judiciary for going along with it.
Civil rights vs. public health safety
How do we balance fears of democracy being undermined by restrictions on individual freedoms, against the renewed public health crisis? Or the anxiety that internet surveillance and a crackdown on questionable posts, against the fake news pandemic that has, among other things, resulted in vaccine hesitancy? Are civil rights and public health safety mutually exclusive?
No sooner had the first wave receded than the lockdown was lifted, in progressive stages. As the number of new cases fell, politicians, administrative authorities and citizens threw caution to the winds. Even though restrictions on the number of people allowed to congregate at social events were still in place, thousands of protesters were permitted to converge at Delhi’s borders.
In the name of the freedoms of assembly and dissent, jathas (organised companies) from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh arrived to protest the Farm Laws 2020. Social distancing and masks were given the go-by. Opposition leaders, also without masks, encouraged and sought to concentrate protesters in larger numbers, instead of behaving responsibly.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has now seen fit to impose restrictions on public mobility and right of assembly, rather than requesting the protesters to go home, went out of his way to accommodate them. The Centre, for its part, engaged in prolonged negotiations and showed no signs of wanting to evict them or demand adherence to Covid-appropriate behaviour.
Worse was to follow. Freedom of religion translated into huge crowds taking a collective dip in the Ganga at Haridwar during the Mahakumbh. Political irresponsibility reached breath-taking heights, with the Uttarakhand chief minister, blithely ignoring directives from the High Court, inviting devotees to come to Haridwar without fear of Covid-related restrictions. A fortnight earlier, in Nanded, a crowed armed with swords attacked policemen in protest against curbs on a religious procession.
Government agencies are quick to observe that none of these public events have proved to be superspreaders, but the fact remains that they have encouraged a Covid-oblivious attitude among citizens.
Politicians across the board dropped their masks, whether it was Punjab’s Health Minister B S Sidhu (and several of his cabinet colleagues), Madhya Pradesh Tourism Minister Usha Thakur, Karnataka Congress chief D K Shivkumar or a host of Odisha’s ministers and MLAs. Only a few were fined for violating norms.
Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani’s observation that “Political leaders have a bigger responsibility. They should follow the rules properly so that no wrong message is conveyed to the public” apparently fell on deaf ears in the election-bound states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam. Tens of thousands attended rallies without masks or social distancing, addressed by leaders who were themselves maskless. To politicians - Mamata Banerjee and Amit Shah, to name two - also goes the credit for popularising the now ubiquitous ‘chin diaper’ syndrome, where the mask is worn below the nose or the mouth.
In effect, politicians failed in their duty to lead by example and thereby encourage citizens to follow protocols. The sudden surge in Covid-19 cases has been attributed to the introduction of new and more transmissible variants, but also to the lowering of our guard. Only now have state governments responded by putting fresh restrictions in place.
Coming back to the question of how, within a democratic setup, a public health crisis could be tackled without evoking fears of a rollback of fundamental freedoms, this is only possible if there is transparency in decision-making and mutual trust between all the stakeholders. Politicians, bureaucrats, the private sector, civil society leaders and citizens have to work together.
This may seem like a pipe dream, but the fact remains that during the initial lockdown, citizens were remarkably disciplined and showed a willingness to accept curbs in the face of the pandemic. Civil society mobilised to help the needy, even as a vast majority of Indians suffered financial, social, educational and emotional setbacks as a result of the extraordinary measures against the pandemic.
Now, with political and social leaders, government agents and industry seen to pursue individual agendas at the cost of the public good, a trust deficit has developed. If the second wave is to be beaten back, it must be addressed.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.