Utilising Covid time for self-reliant India

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Utilising Covid time for self-reliant India

Sunday, 26 July 2020 | Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, I posted a message on Twitter expressing my satisfaction that veteran BJP leader and the man singularly responsible for putting the Ram Janmabhoomi movement on the political map of India, had been invited to attend the bhoomi pujan of the temple in Ayodhya. The post got a great deal of traction — it had nearly seven lakh impressions and some 36,000 engagements. However, among the responses, many expressed dissatisfaction and irritation that at a time such as this I should be obsessing about the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The belief that in times such as this the nation should have a single-point agenda is quite widespread. The problem arises when elaboration is demanded on what the singular focus should be on. For some, the only issue at this point in time is China’s aggression on the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control and the ways to deal with the larger challenge of our eastern neighbour. They feel that every other issue should take a back seat.

There are still others who believe that these are extraordinary times and that there should be single-minded focus on everything that is linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. This preoccupation has led to both the Government and the Opposition arguing at different times that normal business should be suspended.

In Bihar, for example, the Opposition has pressed for the postponement of the Assembly elections on the ground that the pandemic and the social distancing norms make campaigning impossible. There is also the argument that the fear of crowds and infection will lead to a vastly reduced turnout. At the same time, there are misgivings over the extended facilities for postal voting as was proposed and subsequently discarded by the Election Commission.

In Jaipur, on the other hand, in the face of a rebel challenge to the Government of Ashok Gehlot, the Congress has demanded an immediate session of the State Assembly to allow the Chief Minister to secure a vote of confidence. The Governor, however, is maintaining — as of Saturday morning — that in view of the Covid-19 threat, it would be prudent to avoid a session of the State Assembly. This is not least because a vote of confidence isn’t really necessary since, despite Sachin Pilot’s rebellion, the Gehlot Government still commands a slim majority. Of course, Gehlot has his own reasons for wanting to secure a formal vote of confidence since that will obviate any further confidence or no-confidence vote for a further six months.

The tussle between single-mindedly tackling the challenges thrown up by Covid-19 and resuming normal politics has extended to other States. West Bengal, for example, is a State where the Government, the Opposition and society at large has been singularly casual about the Covid-19 threat. The infection has become pretty widespread in Greater Kolkata and there are fears it could be spreading into the villages. There is public concern, stretching to alarm, over the imperfections in the State health administration. Yet, what is quite curious and often inexplicable is that neither the Government nor the Opposition has chosen to make Covid management a primary issue. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee used her speech on July 21 — a landmark annual occasion for the Trinamool Congress — to launch a broadside against the BJP. The BJP on its part is using the extraordinary situation to react to the TMC’s high-handedness in the districts, some hardships on account of cumulative electricity bills and tone up its organisational networks. Despite the social distancing norms, normal politics appears to have resumed in a qualified way. The political parties are certainly not setting an example to a citizenry that in case seems to feel that life must go on as usual.

Overall, all over India, there appears to be some confusion over how best to flatten the rising curve of infections. There is now a general consensus that a national strategy — marked by stringent all-India lockdowns — should give way to local, State and district-based strategies. This has worked best in Delhi where the Aam Aadmi Party-led State Government was wise enough to involve the Central Government too. Yet, lockdowns appear to have become inevitable in Assam and other North-eastern States and even in Karnataka. West Bengal, confronted by the spectre of an out-of-control pandemic, has responded with a somewhat eccentric pattern of lockdowns that may not yield results. Indeed, the fear that Covid-19 may prove to an enduring problem there, even after the rest of India has brought the situation under control, is quite real.

Ideally, the ways of containing the pandemic should have featured on top of the political agenda, with other issues slipping down the hierarchy. This hasn’t happened uniformly. However, the only redeeming feature is that these extraordinary times have been well utilised by the Government to secure the acceptance of the philosophy of a self-reliant India and to begin an overdue discussion on strategic global alliances to contain China. If these serious issues leave their mark on future politics, the prolonged disruption of normal life would have been worth the inconvenience. Maybe India will change, but with the speed of an elephant.

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