Inspite of Surge, COVID-19 Management May Not Turn Votes in Bengal

The COVID surge came "too late in the day" to have an impact on polls, say parties and experts.

Updated
West Bengal
4 min read
People queue up outside a polling station at a village near Balurghat in South Dinajpur district during the seventh phase of West Bengal Assembly elections on Thursday, 29 April. Image used for representational purposes. 
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In the Joypur town of Purulia district in West Bengal, almost no one wore masks when this reporter visited in the first week of March. Most people in the town, and the adjoining villages, had their masks packed away deep inside their small cupboards. Others asked this reporter why she was wearing a mask if she didn’t have corona.

“There was no corona here. But the lockdown was terrible”, said Amitava Pattanayak, a tea stall owner in Joypur, whose shop is the meeting point for visitors, of all political dispensations, across the town.

After the second wave of COVID-19 hit the country, The Quint called Pattanayak again to see if the situation of masks and panic had changed.

“No no. Mask and all is not required. There’s no corona here. We are just fearing another lockdown”, he said.

Elections In The Time Of Corona

The month-long, eight phased, West Bengal elections of 2021 can be split down the middle into a pre-corona and post-corona phase.

It is in between the 4th phase (10 April) and 5th phase (17 April) that the nation took complete stock of the severity of the second wave of COVID-19 that hit the country.

It is then that the insensitivity (and criminality) of mass election rallies came to the fore. And by “to the fore”, we mean that Twitter and the media started talking about it.

As lackadaisical management of the government and the Election Commission (EC) was highlighted, many also asked if the surge in COVID cases will impact voting.

The answer to that, almost unanimously, across political and intellectual circles, is a NO.

The polling trends from the 5th phase onwards, is probably the biggest indicator of the same. The 5th phase saw a turnout of 78.36 percent, the 6th phase saw a turnout of 79.09 percent and the 7th phase saw a turnout of 75.06 percent.

All phases saw high turnouts.

What is interesting, however, is the voting percentage in South Kolkata which went to polls in phase 7. While other districts going to polls in the same phase recorded over 70 percent polling (some even over 80 percent), Kolkata’s turnout was about 61 percent.

A possible reason for this, experts say, is that Kolkata, along with North 24 parganas, is bearing the most amount of case load in the state.

On 26 April, when Kolkata voted, it had over 22,800 active cases. The other districts that were voting – Malda, Murshidabad, Pashchim Bardhaman, and Dakshin Dinajpur – had 4061, 3557, 5353 and 576 cases, respectively.

The “panic” or awareness of the virus, is therefore, amplified in Kolkata where private hospitals are already reporting shortages of beds, oxygen and testing kits.

But, again, this does not indicate if COVID was a polling issue for the voters.

“No Time For Voters To Process The COVID Situation”

All political parties in Bengal have emphasized on the COVID-19 situation in the state and the country over the past two weeks. While the BJP has blamed the Bengal government for not utilizing the funds from the centre for COVID management, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has attacked the Central government’s failures in states like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The TMC has also attacked the EC for the month-long election and its subsequent refusal to club the final phases of polling.

However, both parties feel that while there is a lot of chatter in the digital circles, the effect of the COVID-19 surge is yet to percolate to the hinterlands and the rural areas.

“The data available to us does not show any change in voting pattern due to the COVID-19 situation. While it is wrong to say that areas outside Kolkata are not aware of the COVID situation, the issue has surfaced too late in the day to make an electoral impact. For an issue to become a voting issue, the voter has to first face the problem, realise the problem and then process it to cast their vote on the same. That is not happening. Not even in Kolkata”, said a Trinamool insider, who did not want to be identified.

The party, however, has kept up its attack against the BJP with regard to its COVID management like it has highlighted all the missteps of the central government in the past.

“We have always spoken about the places where the Centre or the BJP has fallen short nationally. Be it Hathras or the CAA or something else. The COVID crisis is just that. Another issue of national policy that the BJP has, to put it mildly, messed up”, said the TMC insider.

The BJP’s state leadership also doesn’t believe that COVID management in say Delhi, or Uttar Pradesh will have an impact in the Bengal polls.

“The rallies were conducted by all parties and the people saw that. When it comes to voting, the people are more bothered about cut money and corruption that has plagued them for 10 years. People dying because of COVID in Delhi is not on their minds at all”, said a senior BJP leader.

From travel across Bengal during the elections, another interesting point is what was mentioned by Amitava Pattanayak.

Even in 2020, when the virus hit, people in Bengal were more affected by the lockdown than the virus itself. Across the state, from South to North, people recounted painful tales of loss of livelihood during the lockdown. The stories of being affected by corona and subsequent lack of healthcare infrastructure were few and far between. In fact, this reporter found that healthcare facilities were only spoken about in some districts of North Bengal which has only one government COVID facility that caters to all six districts of North Bengal as well as some patients from Sikkim.

The fear of the lockdown, therefore, far exceeds the fear of contracting the virus, as Pattanayak said.

And with both the central and the state government announcing that a lockdown in the state is not a possibility, that fear has been temporarily quelled.

With COVID numbers in the state hitting a new record every day, even with low levels of testing, the political plan of getting the electorate to worry about the virus only after the election is over, may be successful.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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