Column | Partisan politics reigns over pandemic

Can you talk politics in the time of COVID-19? That was a point of debate in Kerala until recently. That has changed abruptly and some of the opposition leaders have decided to talk only politics. They did not even hesitate before dragging the family members of chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan into a controversy. What explains the partisan politics in Kerala at a time when the entire world is terrorised by the coronavirus?

The answer is simple. The assembly election is around the corner. The political formations have to keep themselves ready for the decisive battle ahead.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front was focused on the seriousness of the issue when its leaders met up on Tuesday. That was not just another video conference in the time of COVID-19. That was the first video conference of a political alliance in Kerala, where the idea of alliances was born. Interestingly, the conference was more productive and issue-based than the previous face-to-face interactions. The Congress legislators also decided to meet up on video conference. Politicians do not want the coronavirus to hamper their preparedness for elections.

The PR

Be it opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala or the president of the Kerala Students Union (the student wing of the Congress in Kerala), detractors raise the bogey of a PR agency while targeting the chief minister and the government. What they are implying is that the chief minister has been relying on a PR agency to improve his image and perform in elections and interact more effectively on social media.

The idea was originally shared by Congress leader V D Satheesan in a meeting of the political affairs committee three months ago. He said he had reliable information that the chief minister had contracted a Mumbai-based firm that specialises in image building. That led to suggestion that Pinarayi’s smiling face in the Legislative Assembly and outside was part of a media strategy.

The opposition also claimed that a group of PR professionals who were camping in Thiruvananthapuram was launching campaigns such as getting movies stars on social media on behalf of the government. They even claimed that the Left Democratic Front was advised by the firm to field V K Prashant as the candidate in the assembly byelection in Vattiyoorkavu.

The illusion

The CPM and the government sources, however, have rejected the arguments. Neither the organisers of the chief minister’s daily press briefings nor the official public relations department experience an outside influence. Where does the invisible team come from? They point out to an earlier campaign that the chief minister was about to seek help from election strategist Prashant Kishor.

In that case, the chief minister must be dealing personally with the evasive PR firm, if the opposition leaders are to be believed. That is a very difficult proposition since Pinarayi is not known as someone dancing to the tune of an ad agency. Yet the CPM is conveniently ignoring the sustained opposition campaign centered on a “PR agency”.

The opposition may be worried if the government is into data mining to further its political agenda. That worry may be behind the allegations related to a contract with Sprinklr. If political leaders from Narendra Modi to Pinarayi are tapping into technology to drive their campaign, the opposition does not want to be left out. Some of the leaders have mooted the search for alternative agencies.

The UDF was resting on its laurels after the landslide in Kerala in the general election last year. Their confidence of getting back in power in the state, however, was shattered when the LDF pulled off impressive victories in the assembly byelections. That delicate balance of power is on display in the present charges and counter charges that even eclipse a devastating pandemic.

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