ON THE MORNING OF 17 APRIL, amidst a chorus of loud cheers, Narendra Modi walked across a stage to stand at a podium, all set to address an election rally in the city of Asansol, in West Bengal. As the prime minister found his place at the podium, he promptly removed his snugly-fit white mask, rubbed his face and stroked his flowing white beard. For a few seconds, Modi took in the cheering crowd through impassive eyes, before raising his hands in a namaskar above his head. The rally had begun.
Thousands of supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party had gathered at Asansol’s Nigha airbase. The venue was chosen because it could accommodate more people than the Asansol Polo Ground, which is where most local political rallies are usually held. BJP workers were certain of a huge turnout and insisted that the large grounds of the airbase would allow them to ensure social distancing, as necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. By 10 am, as the crowd grew—people sat in plastic chairs squished next to each other, or stood huddled together in groups at the back—social distancing appeared to be a distant reality.
As Modi delivered his speech, taking jabs at West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress and its chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, a mass of faces looked on. Some attendees sported a loosely fitted saffron mask, often embellished with the BJP’s lotus symbol. Others wore surgical masks around their necks or up to their mouths, leaving their noses exposed. And still others could be seen sitting without any masks at all, coughing into their hands, before looking up and waving at a camera.