God's Own Twenty20: The year Oommen Chandy felt lonely and CPM's study classes went online

God's Own Twenty20: The year Oommen Chandy felt lonely and CPM's study classes went online

One fine morning in 2020, Oommen Chandy found himself not in the middle of a crowd. And, that sums up what the year and its partner in crime – the coronavirus – did to the politicians of Kerala. The virus forced even the politicians change their ways. For decades, they have been advocating, day in and out, of the need to change, though they cared the least to undergo any significant change. Hence, the virus succeeded in becoming what the netas failed to – an agent of social change.

Politics as a profession and practice witnessed a behavioural change, just like other arenas of public life, as social distancing became the new normal.

Oommen Chandy's is not a lone case. The former chief minister represents a breed of politicians in Kerala, cutting across party lines, who get their high from being in the middle of people, listening to them and trying to find solutions to their problems. No doubt, they all suffocated during the lockdown days, when for the first time in their decades-old careers, they had to keep themselves away from the people.

"Things are tough for me. In my life I have not encountered such a situation. I am now stuck here, and have not been to my constituency for the past 12 days. Many have warned me not to hang around, but I feel restless. This is something which I never ever thought would happen. What to do now, as we are duty-bound also to adhere to laws for our own safety and of others,” Chandy had said in March this year when the State was under lockdown.

Politics goes virtual

The year 2020 saw politics being played out on the virtual ground.

For the first time, cyberspace was being used for more than propaganda and its prodigal sons, bullying and smear campaign. Political parties, of all colours, met online at all levels, from local to state to the national forums. Zoom and Skype became part of the political lexicon.

However, politicians, for whom proximity matters a lot, virtual meetings can never be the substitute for a physical gathering. A senior Congress leader in central Kerala said virtual meetings lacked the organic nature of a political discussion.

He said the process of communication in a virtual meet was often incomplete as participants couldn't recognise and respond to the body language of each other.

That said, the leader was realistic enough to say that if such meetings were to be continued for a long period, all leaders would have become more accustomed to the new ways.

Whether complete or incomplete, all the political parties in Kerala held hundreds of meetings online during the COVID days and 'zoomed' in to crucial decisions.

The COVID year saw hectic activity by political parties and their feeder outfits on social media. The CPM even started study classes online. As people spent more time on the Internet and social media during the lockdown, political parties who used the spaces wisely to pass information and initiate interactions could gain much in terms of perception building.

The masked smile

In Kerala, a politician has to master the art of smiling if she has to be one.

Corona may have masked their smiles, but politicians cannot take it as an excuse not to flex their facial muscles.

Hence, 2020 taught them to smile through the layered masks. Kerala's Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala has even found a way to identify a smile hidden behind the mask.

“One can identify a smile behind a mask by looking at someone's eyes. During the (local body) election campaign, I saw a lot of such smiling faces by looking at their eyes,” he wrote in a Facebook post recently.

While it's possible for a politician to smile even while wearing a face mask, what apparently troubled them the most was to control their urge to greet someone with a handshake. “It was really difficult in the initial days as all through our careers, we have been used to handshakes and hugs. However, now the no-handshake, no-hug policy has become part of our lives, only for the time being,” a leader said.

The campaign that was not

COVID could delay the local body polls in Kerala by a few months. But it could not take away the spirit of the election-crazy people even a bit. The state voted with much enthusiasm, overturning apprehensions about the fear of the virus playing spoilsport. The elections had everything except the charged physical campaigning.

The virtual electioneering saw political parties resorting to digital posters using advanced technologies, leaders delivering video messages and cyber gatherings. WhatsApp groups became the new village salons and tea stalls.

It would, however, be wrong to record that Kerala saw a full-fledged virtual politicking and electioneering in 2020.

Politicians at the grassroots levels made sure that they met as many voters as possible and took their messages to the doorsteps.

Politics on the ground remain unchanged, mostly

2020 was also a year when the people needed their leaders and activists on the ground.

As people stayed indoor, they needed the netas to ensure that the supplies and services they needed were intact and uninterrupted. The activists, belonging to both ruling and opposition fronts, vied with each other in running the government sponsored community kitchens across the state.

Youth wings like the DYFI and the Youth Congress and feeder outfits like the All India Professionals' Congress came up with innovative ideas to raise funds for the pandemic-hit people and buy TV sets and gadgets for the underprivileged children who faced the heat of the digital divide once online classes started.

New dilemmas, old habits

Political activism in 2020 also saw new dilemmas triggered by the unprecedented crisis induced by COVID.

As the ruling Left front was seen gaining an upper hand and advantage with its much celebrated fight against the COVID, which now many feel was premature, the confusion in the opposition camp became evident day by day.

The opposition parties, especially the Congress could not oppose the government tooth and nail even as they felt that the ground beneath their feet was eroding.

While the ruling front got a lot of media space and the opportunity to flaunt its achievements with the chief minister's sunset press briefings which became prime time TV content, the opposition's attempts to counter the government's claims boomeranged on multiple occasions (remember Chennithala's media mania and Mullappally's COVID Queen remarks against Health Minister Shailaja).

A video of Chennithala's interactions with overseas Keralites became a public relations disaster. However, the COVID times also saw Chennithala emerging as an aggressive opposition leader with allegations after allegations against the government including the Sprinklr row which put the government on the defensive.

The Congress-led UDF took to the streets as the diplomatic baggage gold smuggling scam rocked the state and the BJP tried to position itself as the major opposition front.

The Left activists called the protesters 'merchants of death'. The name was first used against a group of Youth Congress activists, led by Shafi Parambil, as they rushed to the Walayar checkpost to help a group of Keralites who were stopped by the police for lack of necessary passes.

Now, with the UDF and the BJP failing to make a significant victory in the local body polls and the political narrative shifting in favour of the LDF once again, Kerala's political sphere is apparently witnessing a silent yet disturbing calmness ahead of another round of chaos ahead of the state polls due in a few months. The new normal is DYFI's DJ parties on the road!


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