Coronavirus crisis puts politics on hold
The worldwide coronavirus outbreak was not a top priority for the Modi government till then, though former Congress president Rahul Gandhi was among the first to draw attention to it.
When the second half of the budget session of Parliament commenced earlier this month, opposition parties were all primed to put the Modi government on the mat over its failure to contain the communal carnage witnessed in Northeast Delhi. Besides the Delhi violence, the opposition felt it had a clear edge over the government, given the country’s shaky economy, the lingering protests against the new citizenship law and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s humiliating defeat in the recent Delhi election. Undoubtedly, the session started on a promising note for the opposition as it did succeed, to some extent, in cornering the government on these issues.
The worldwide coronavirus outbreak was not a top priority for the Modi government till then, though former Congress president Rahul Gandhi was among the first to draw attention to it. He warned that India would face “devastation and unimaginable pain” if it failed to take timely measures to handle COVID-19, and also its consequences. These warnings were not taken seriously, laced as they were with the usual personal attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as Rahul Gandhi accused him of “sleeping at the wheel” and not doing enough to deal with this serious public health issue.
However, the situation changed dramatically within three weeks. As the deadly coronavirus slowly spread its tentacles across the country, claiming lives and destroying the economy, it also proved fatal for the opposition parties. Once the government stepped up its efforts to deal with the growing number of coronavirus cases, and Modi personally reached out to the people for their cooperation in this hour of crisis, the opposition was left with little choice but to support the Centre’s efforts. The opposition realised that this was not the time to score brownie points over its political rival, as it would not be looked upon kindly by the people.
Consequently, a comatose opposition, which was showing tentative signs of taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been effectively silenced. The change of mood in the opposition was reflected in the declarations of cooperation from its leaders. Even Rahul Gandhi was forced to admit that the financial assistance announced by the government for farmers and daily wage earners was a step in the right direction. Congress president Sonia Gandhi was quick to dash off a letter to Modi, offering her party’s full support to the government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Though she asked the government to initiate a host of economic and health measures for vulnerable sections, she also underlined that this was not the time for partisan politics. Sonia Gandhi was clearly guided by her past experience during the Kargil war, when the party paid a heavy price for repeatedly attacking the Vajpayee government, while the armed forces were battling it out in inhospitable terrain.
Forced to put all political activity on hold in this hour of national crisis, the opposition is going to find it extremely difficult to get back into the game, once normalcy is restored. As it is, it was not in good health, but it has now been virtually paralysed. While the Congress has been
adrift since the hammering it received in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, the other opposition parties are in no better shape. Their leaders have proved singularly ineffective in challenging the BJP ideologically.
The BJP, on the other hand, remains ahead of its rivals. It is clear that the continuing spike in coronavirus cases poses a huge challenge for the Modi government. But much to its relief, the pandemic has had no adverse political impact on the ruling alliance or the saffron party. In fact, it has been advantage BJP. Issues like the anti-CAA protests, the Delhi violence, and the economic downturn, which were earlier nagging the saffron party and Modi government, have now receded into the background.
The Shaheen Bagh protesters have been banished, the victims of the Delhi Northeast communal bloodshed have been forgotten, and angry university students have fallen silent. Kashmir is no longer grabbing attention. The release of National Conference leaders Farooq and Omar Abdullah virtually went unnoticed. The country’s ailing economy, which has now worsened, will no longer be blamed on the Modi government’s misguided policies, but will, instead, be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even as the Modi government was battling COVID-19, the BJP did not lose sight of its political agenda. The party took full advantage of the disarray in the Congress and moved in quickly for the kill in Madhya Pradesh, where it brought down the Kamal Nath government and installed Shivraj Singh Chouhan as chief minister. It is said that every adversity has a silver lining. This certainly holds true for Modi, who comes out unsinged from every crisis. But not so for the clueless and leaderless opposition, which is still struggling to figure out the direction it should take.
The writer is a senior journalist. This column will appear every fortnight