If you were a foreigner and you just flew into India and glanced at the newspapers or watched television, you would think that the pandemic is not what is exercising the government of the day. It is the power politics that is playing out in different states. It is the toppling of the Congress government of Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan. It is the preparation of building a grand Ram Temple in Ayodhya. It is about arrests of human rights activists for alleged acts against the state.
But India today is the third most affected country in the world after the United States and Brazil. India has over 13,00,000 cases that are rapidly increasing with over 50,000 cases being detected every day despite test levels being low in many states. Over 31,000 have died due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, over three lakh have recovered.
Hospitals all over India are under tremendous stress and the healthcare system is not being able to handle the huge number of cases and even tests. Most patients are now being persuaded to stay quarantined at home and visit the hospital only if they have serious breathing problems. But, we have been told numerous times that India has done so well in comparison with the rest of the world.
Incidentally, massive floods have claimed over a hundred lives in Assam and Bihar. It is one of the worst floods in recent times that has affected over 56,00,000 people in over 26 districts.
But that is not news. New Delhi is on another plane. United Nations told New Delhi on July 21st that it would support India to tackle the devastating floods in Assam. It was only on July 23rd that the Indian government announced a relief fund of Rs 346 crore to tackle the Assam floods that had already hit the state for the third time in a month. The first wave came in June, the second in mid-July and the third a few days after that.
In Bihar, nearly five lakh people in over a dozen districts have been affected by the floods. Over 13,000 have been displaced from their homes.
On July 23rd, the big news all over was not that the floods had affected so many lakhs in the north-east. The big news was also not of the pandemic that was spreading and had infected over a million people making it the third most affected country in the world.
No prizes for guessing. It was about how the height of Ayodhya’s Ram Temple would be increased by 20 feet and would soon have its foundation laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Could this have been postponed keeping in view the serious health emergency in the country? Was it prudent to hold a public function where despite instructions, people would throng throwing physical distancing to the winds? Religious congregations like the one in Odisha recently showed how just one case of a COVID-19 carrier was making health officials go around testing over 5,000 people who attended it.
Could the toppling of the Congress-led Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh have waited? Did you watch the celebrations throwing physical distancing to the winds when the BJP managed to wrest power by wooing Congressmen into their fold by making them rebel against Kamal Nath? It took many weeks even for the new chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, to induct a cabinet when the pandemic was raging. He did not even have a health minister. The accent was on power politics, not governance.
Madhya Pradesh today has over 27,000 COVID-19 cases as July comes to an end. The state has not done well in handling the crisis.
Could attempts to topple the Congress-led Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan have waited till the pandemic slowed down? Gehlot who was concentrating on the pandemic is not doing that anymore as he is fighting to save his government, trying to knock on the door of the court, carry his supporters to a five-star hotel and keep a watch over each of them as there is fear that they would be bought over to cross to over to the BJP.
Just look at the television news channels and it is all about what Gehlot is doing to outsmart the moves to topple his government as his friends and brother get raided by government authorities under direction from New Delhi.
Rajasthan has over 34,000 COVID-19 as July comes to an end. Sadly, that is not the priority as patients die every day.
Could we have postponed the visit of the United States President Donald Trump as it meant that over one lakh people would have to gather to listen to him in the Namaste Trump rally at a stadium in Ahmedabad? The pandemic was raging all over the world and as there was absolutely no urgency, it could have been postponed as there were more urgent fire-fighting to do in India to contain the spread of the virus. But, it was power politics that held sway.
Look at how state and central government politics is playing out today to figure out what is wrong with Indian polity that has garnered lop-sided priorities and is chasing them with the vigour as if there is no tomorrow. Congress supporters are out on the streets of Kerala demanding that Chief Minister P. Vijayan of the CPM lead government resign not because of how he has handled COVID-19, but because there has been a gold smuggling racket in the state.
In Bihar, both the state and the central government is busy planning for the state elections and are drawing out strategies to capture power when they can easily postpone that activity which is still far away and concentrate on improving the shockingly pathetic health infrastructure that is unable to handle the pandemic that is spreading and claiming lives.
A lot of environmental clearances have been given during the pandemic without ensuring that in the long run, it is going to be safe and not counter-productive. It might seem that it is good for business but is it good for the people who will be affected by it for the rest of their lifetimes.
Interestingly, the Delhi Police recently went to the extent of invoking provisions under the anti-terrorism law against a website that is managed by an activist group called ‘Fridays For Future’. The group had been protesting against proposed changes in norms for green clearances. Is this why they were booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act?
This happened as Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar filed a complaint saying that his inbox had got flooded with emails that dealt with the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2020. As the public could not go to meetings to protest, they had resorted to sending emails to the minister about various project clearances that would impact them. The charges were later withdrawn.
Governments are elected by the people with the expectation that they would govern well and ensure that they have a better future. They do not vote for a government hoping that once they are in power they would spend the rest of the term toppling elected state governments and grabbing power. They do not want to see horse-trading. They do not want to see narrow politics playing out which have very short-term interests. They are looking for a better quality of life, employment opportunities, better education, and health facilities, a healthy economy that is competing to become one of the fastest-growing in the world and to work consciously to bring in harmony and peace between communities.
Activists like Vara Vara Rao in Maharashtra and Akhil Gogoi in Assam and others were kept behind bars despite the danger that they would get infected with COVID-19 in unkempt jails. Ironically, convicts were released in large numbers all over India to stop the spread in jails, but 79-year-old Rao was not spared as the government wanted to send out a message that dissent would not be tolerated.
Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia rebelling against his party and leaving to join the BJP is democracy at its best according to the ruling party as it suits them to topple a democratically elected government that had a majority. This is showcased on how dissent is one of the pillars of democracy. At the same time, numerous student leaders were arrested during the pandemic under draconian laws for taking part in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act with the argument that this was not dissenting as they were alleged to have incited communal riots.
Amnesty International India said last month that India must consider the release of 11 human right activists pending trial and ensure that their health and safety was not jeopardized just because they had been critical of the government.
Some of the jailed activists are Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Sudha Bharadwaj, Vara Vara Rao, Arun Fereira, Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha. All these names are familiar to Dalits and Adivasis as they fought for the rights of India’s marginalised.
Governments get elected to govern. But the norm now is to get elected and then get around to consolidating themselves in power in states where they are not in power. So the focus is on election after election. On increasing numbers in the Rajya Sabha by encouraging floor crossing and defections. Power Politics is the name of the game.
The opposition has lost its lens to look at issues in the country. It is largely silent afraid of how it would be targeted if they speak against the government or highlight any of its failures.
However, a resolution of the Congress Working Committee said that the Union government seems to have abandoned its responsibilities and passed the buck to the states, without offering adequate support. It pointed out that even after four months, the Modi government had not unveiled a coherent strategy on reducing fatalities, increasing testing, contact tracing, and ensuring social distancing and safety for the most vulnerable population. There was also no data available about hospital beds and ventilators available apart from the fact that there was no clarity on future capacity planning, expansion of the health workforce, recruitment of doctors, nurses, and health workers.
The politics of development, the politics of sabka vikas, sab ke saath, and a new dawn that was promised in 2014 has yet to happen. Six years is a long time.(Published on 27th July 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 31)