While it has handled the Coronavirus pandemic well in statistical terms, India’s management of the subsequent migrant labourer crisis and the conduct of Indian political class, has been far from satisfactory.
The great Indian ‘tu-tu, main-main’ or a political slugfest has continued at every level of political hierarchy, as if all is well and normal. When priority should be relief and rehabilitation of migrant laborers in country’s most populous state, Yogi Adityanath’s administration and Priyanka Gandhi’s supporters have been openly trading charges. The Congress’ strategy for Uttar Pradesh has been both problematic and contradictory. In terms of its political strength, it is the fourth largest party in the state, behind Akhilesh Yadav-led-Samajwadi party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, however, under Priyanka’s leadership, the Congress aims to covert the 2022 UP state polls into a ‘Adityanath versus Priyanka’ battle, therefore, a no-holds-barred, ‘winner takes it all’ strategy has been employed.
Leaders of 28 opposition parties intend to meet via video conferencing on May 22, 2020 to take a ‘united’ stand against Centre. West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee and Maharashtra’s Udhav Thackeray have been accusing the Narendra Modi government for making contradictory statements on enforcement of the lockdown, all the while ignoring a spirit of “cooperative federalism.” The war of words has been so severe that Mamata has termed Modi government’s Rs. 20 lakh crore or $ 265,197,400,000 worth special economic package as a “big zero,” claiming that it has nothing of help the Indian states. The Combined opposition wishes to convince Indians that the Modi regime mishandled the migrant crisis, and that the special economic package is a farce.
These developments indicate that there is hardly any scope of constructive criticism and spirit of co-operation during a pandemic. The ruling NDA has its own share of blame. Before the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 22nd 2020, the state governments were not consulted. Even as lockdown was imposed in second, third and fourth phase, the ministry of home affairs, National Disaster Management Agency and other federal bodies pushed for more instructions, Does and Don’ts, guidelines etc., instead of listening to or incorporating the experience and suggestions of the states.
However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did reach out to the opposition – former prime ministers, former presidents, leaders of major political parties, through video conferencing. The prime minister also periodically engaged chief ministers of various states, seeking their suggestions. But it was perfunctory, and nowhere near have the Dutch modeled wherein Prime Minister Mark Rutte appointed rival Labor party opposition MP, Martin Van Rijn as the country’s new health minister, to help combat the Coronavirus pandemic for next three months. Rutte, who belongs to People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, had through twitter clarified that he opted for Van Rijn due to his multifold experience in health management as a former health secretary. Rijn is also the former head of the Reinier-Haga hospital system, which manages eight hospitals. This move has also highlighted one of the great merits of cross-party working-the ability of the PM to share the blame, if things were to go wrong.
The Indian opposition, on the other hand, seems happy to be unhappy. Aware that a pandemic like Coronavirus has restricted political space and actual democratic participation i.e. street protests, crowd mobilization etc, Congress finds it easier to ask questions from Modi government. This explains why Rahul Gandhi has been working on Lohiaite principle of opposition for opposition’s sake. Rahul’s rather uncharacteristic move to interact with noted economists like Raghuram Rajan and Abhijeet Banerjee on two separate occasions, reportedly, observed a viewership of over 75 million people. Even if one takes this Congress party claim with a pinch of salt, the strategy has worked in terms of earning ‘brownie points’ and increasing visibility.
Rahul’s bid to interact with migrants at an underpass in Delhi received a ‘dramabaaz’ slur from finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who displayed the contempt for the opposition leader.
Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party remain clueless about its future roadmap on how to reap political dividends. The Bihar assembly polls are round the corner, where the Congress is not a major political player. In Madhya Pradesh, it faces crucial assembly polls in 24 seats where its recent defectors will be seeking a fresh mandate. Theoretically, Congress has a chance to bring down Shivraj Singh Chouhan-run-BJP regime if were to win 18 assembly seats. But, the Coronavirus pandemic has deprived the party from marshalling any major political activity in Gwalior-Chambal region where bulk of assembly by-polls will be fought.
Naysayers in the Congress even go to the extent of presenting a rather grim scenario for 2024 parliamentary polls hinting at a potential fall of Lok Sabha seats from Punjab and Kerala, where the grand old party had won 23 parliamentary seats. Even party bigwigs are silent on possible substantial gains from any major states.
Privately, a section of the Congress has been advising Rahul to openly criticise Modi. They point out, that when Bangladesh was created in 1971, Jan Sangh leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee had credited Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and reportedly described her as ‘Abhinav Chandi Durga’ for defeating Pakistan in the war. However, Rahul, unwilling to let Prime Minister Modi have a larger than life image, has reportedly vetoed the suggestion pointing at the opposition’s defeat in a bulk of state polls held in 1972.
Therein lies the crux of the matter and a bit of real-politick. The opposition does not want Modi and the BJP to walk away with any success. While it may sound uncharitable to dub opposition leaders wishing Modi regime to fail and falter against the Coronavirus pandemic, options seem scarce.
In principle, Modi government should have taken an initiative to engage the Opposition before first phase of lockdown was announced. On its own, Opposition can neither mobilize nor instruct the bureaucracy or administration to deliver anything when not in power.
On the issue of political decency, both Congress and the BJP have been amiss. The BJP leaders have been using strong language to denigrate both Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. In retaliation, the Congress Party, particularly on social media platforms, has often crossed the unwritten ‘Laxman Rekha’ of decency and decorum.
Opposition and the ruling parties in India have had a chequered history of blocking, installing and opposing everything for the sake of opposition. At the 2014 launch of Rajdeep Sardesai’s book, ‘2014 The Election that Changed India’ by Arun Jaitley and P Chidambaram, we witnessed a lively exchange on the role reversal by the Congress and BJP, while in power and in the opposition. When Chidambaram started blaming Jaitley for leaving the insurance reforms stalled during UPA years, Jaitley turned to remind Chidambaram that the insurance bill was originally a proposal of the (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee government, “Let me take you back….”. Before Jaitley could elaborate further, Chidambaram intervened, “Well, if we are going back, let me take you even further back to 1996-98 when I had originally made the insurance liberalization proposals as finance minister in the United Front government, the BJP opposed…”
Truth of the matter is that for a majority of Indian political class, Corona pandemic is ‘one of those things’ to settle scores and play political games. But ask any public health policy expert, it is far too serious a crisis to be left to the political players.
The article first appeared in Observer Research Foundation.
The author is a visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.