Politics in a state of flux amid pandemic

Barring an attempt to communalise the Tablighi incident, the ruling party’s Hindutva agenda has taken a back seat. More pressing themes have come to the fore — hunger, health, the reverse march of millions of migrants, and the need to ensure food security.

Politics in a state of flux amid pandemic

Crucial factor at play: Migrants will remain the defining image of the war against Covid-19 in India.

Neerja Chowdhury

Senior political commentator

To say that Covid-19 is going to change life dramatically is to state the obvious. We will have more people working from home, more digital education, more e-commerce companies catering to our daily needs in the post-pandemic order.

Politics, too, is undergoing a change. It feels like another age when the BJP had made NCR-NPR-CAA its foremost concern, having abrogated Article 370 in J&K, and got the Supreme Court’s go-ahead to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Today, barring an attempt to communalise the Tablighi incident, the ruling party’s Hindutva agenda has taken a back seat, at least for the time being.

Other more pressing themes have come to the fore — hunger, health, the reverse march of millions of migrants, and the need to ensure food security. Migrants will remain the defining image of the Covid war in India. They have emerged as a new category of poverty, representing a long neglected underbelly of urban India. The government did not anticipate their reaction when it went in for a lockdown. It will now have to evolve a road map for them, and consider setting up a ministry specially designated for addressing their problems, if it wants them to return to the cities to ensure economic revival.

Apart from the issues which are now likely to engage us, the pandemic may also change our expectations from our political leaders. People may discover an appetite for leaders who have a nuts-and-bolts approach to issues, and can articulate not just ‘what’ should be done but ‘how’ it will be executed, detailing what needs to go into the exercise to get the results.

It is for this reason that Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan is being viewed with new eyes. An otherwise uncharismatic leader of the CPI (M), he — more so his proactive health minister — is being acclaimed internationally, for what has come to be known as the Kerala model to combat coronavirus. Those who have gone back to Kerala by flight or road, tell you of the preparation the government has made to receive them at every stage, to send them for quarantine, to have the local panchayat and the health department check on them to see that everything has gone according to plan.

A pregnant women who arrived by flight was given a packet containing information on where she would be staying for 14 days, the number of the vehicle which would take her there — it had a partition separating the driver from the passenger — and she even got a phone call en route that a meal, costing Rs 45, would be ready for her. And this was no special treatment; she had, like everyone else, registered on the official portal!

In the US, too, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has become something of a folk hero, because of his hands-on leadership, even though a large number have died in the state. For this reason, the popularity of many US Governors has risen while Donald Trump’s ratings are sliding.

From all accounts, PM Modi has not lost his ratings, and that is essentially because he still creates a sense of confidence of being on top of the situation. But with a sharp spike in cases taking place with the easing of the lockdown, it is early days to conclude how the story is going to pan out. The Centre has vacillated between the ‘life’ and ‘livelihood’ dilemma — possibly also pressure from the rating agencies internationally, and from industry and trade at home. Many are worried that the health infrastructure, which was supposed to be put in place during the lockdown, remains woefully inadequate. But then Modi, unlike Trump, has the advantage of a weak Opposition and four years to go for elections.

The Opposition parties are walking a tightrope. They, too, have to strike a balance between criticising the government actions and not come across as ‘negative’. For some time now, they have been criticised for sticking to the ‘safe zone’ of Twitter, instead of engaging in mass politics. This is going to become even more difficult now, given the need for social distancing. It does not prevent them from setting the political agenda. Sonia Gandhi managed to put the government on the defensive when she offered that the Congress would pay for the fares of the migrant labour headed home. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra upped the pressure on the UP CM when she lined up 1,000 buses on the Rajasthan-UP border, offering to transport the workers to their villages.

The battle against Covid has strengthened the position of the Chief Ministers. Most of them, particularly those from the non-NDA parties, are coming into their own. It is the CM and his/her team of bureaucrats in command today. The Modi model of a strong PM and a strong PMO is now being replicated at the state level.

There is everything to be said for a clear line of command in times of crisis. But several CMs have not called Cabinet meetings. The role of ministers, MPs, MLAs is diminishing. Gone is the MPLAD scheme that enhanced the authority of an MP or MLA in her constituency. Nor is it clear when Parliament, or state Assemblies, will meet and exercise their oversight role.

It is also not clear whether elections will be held to the Bihar Assembly due in October-November. Sushil Modi, Deputy CM of Bihar, floated a trial balloon last week, when he talked about the possibility of ‘online polling’, which many fear could be open to manipulation. Postponement of the polls is a bad precedent to set. If online polling or postponement of polls can take place in Bihar, it can also be justified in West Bengal, UP, Tamil Nadu or in Punjab, where polls are due in the next two years.

With Covid-19, we may be moving towards greater centralisation of power at different levels and a weakening of the countervailing forces which check it.

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