Apart from spreading the coronavirus disease Covid-19, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, or SARS-2, has already changed the course of Indian politics.
The Narendra Modi government has had to indefinitely postpone the door-to-door enumeration and profiling of 1.37 billion Indians, who are locked in at home, fearing a pandemic, and already bearing the brunt of its economic consequences.
It is anybody’s guess how soon life could go back to being normal — it could be two months or two years.
For now, Covid-19 has thrown a spanner in the works for the Modi government’s Hindutva agenda.
In its first year after re-election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wanted to carry out all its top Hindutva projects, and most of it has been accomplished. The constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir, the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, the ‘chronological’ CAA-NPR-NRC laws that threaten to strip Indian Muslims of their citizenship — all of these now feel like a distant memory. They belong to the BC period, Before Coronavirus.
The Modi government likely planned more such Hindutva policies — a population control law, and a uniform civil code. Those are not viable at the moment.
After 23 May 2019, the Modi government had the political capital to put governance and economy on the back burner, even as it paid a price for it in state elections. Now, as Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is criticised for shifting a statue of Lord Ram amid a lockdown, he can no longer play the Hindu card to silence his critics.
Like waking up screaming in the middle of a nightmare, Covid-19 has rudely brought governance and economy back on centre stage. A glass of water, please.
Crisis is opportunity
The word crisis comes from the Greek krisis, which originally meant, “turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death”. Covid-19 is just such a turning point.
Nobody knows better than Narendra Modi that crisis is opportunity. Even before the fire in Sabarmati Express train near Godhra, Modi’s first crisis was a massive earthquake in Bhuj in 2001. Efficient post-quake relief and reconstruction, in alliance with the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), helped a newly appointed Gujarat chief minister bolster his image in the BJP and the state at large.
And then there was Godhra and the ensuing anti-Muslim riots, which helped Modi present himself as a Hindutva icon.
Covid-19 is similarly a political opportunity for Narendra Modi. And luck often favours him. If he can bring India out of this crisis relatively less affected than the West, he will be even stronger than he became after 23rd May. He will have a lot more political capital to pursue the Hindutva agenda and ignore the economic slump.
So far his record on Covid-19 is mixed. He can say he did an early lockdown, not making the mistake of Britain’s Boris Johnson and US’ Donald Trump. But Modi has been failing on testing and providing protective gear to medical workers. He can say he was early with screening people at airports but even that had several loopholes and not all incoming travellers were screened, and he followed it up with an ill-planned lockdown that is now causing more harm than good.
But it’s early days. It won’t be until a few weeks that we can get a sense about whether India ducked the coronavirus or whether the inevitable happens. Meanwhile, the Modi propaganda machinery is already doing its best to keep his voters assured that he’s using his supernatural powers to defeat the virus:
Beat this pic.twitter.com/0scAlXurqc
— Shivam Vij (@DilliDurAst) March 30, 2020
A new page for the opposition
If the Covid-19 crisis is a political opportunity for Narendra Modi, it is an even greater opportunity for the opposition. To begin with, the crisis has turned the page on Hindutva, at least for now. The opposition no longer has the excuse that it is unable to appeal to a majority of voters just because they are being given a regular dose of intoxicating Hindutva.
The public will now test Narendra Modi on three counts: response to the pandemic, the health infrastructure at large, and the state of the Indian economy. On all three fronts, the opposition has a big window of opportunity, which will last at least a few weeks if not a few months.
For the most part, the Congress party’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has come across as mature, its opposition constructive. It is criticising the Modi government’s follies and yet not appearing to be Pavlovian in its criticism. It is coming across as trying to solve a grave problem rather than score political brownie points and bring down Narendra Modi.
This is unlike how we have seen the Congress party — and indeed, the wider opposition — respond since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014. From demonetisation and lynching to GST and NRC, the opposition came across as unsure of its own position, attacking Modi but unable to find a voice that would appeal to the people.
That cognitive dissonance could change if the opposition continues its mature response and remembers that its focus is to convince the masses that it can do a better job of governance than the current dispensation.
When Rahul Gandhi suggests a strategy, a different way of dealing with the pandemic, he comes out looking much better than he did with ‘Chowkidar chor hai’. Indeed, Rahul Gandhi can legitimately claim brownie points for warning about the crisis when Modi was partying with Trump at the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad.
While the Congress old guard may think their party’s former president needs to go easy on low-level Modi-bashing at a time of national crisis, it is a sign of Rahul Gandhi’s maturity that he welcomes an economic package by the government like a constructive opposition leader.
This is the right time for Rahul Gandhi to give up his angry young man phase and reconcile with the old guard. He could then benefit from the collective wisdom of the party. For instance, when P. Chidambaram outlines what the Modi government needed to do to fight Covid-19, it helps the Congress present itself as a party that knows about governance.
Chief ministers lead the way
In what may or may not be a coincidence, the chief ministers standing out in the crisis are all in non-NDA ruled states. This does not include Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who is standing in a halfway house between opposition and NDA ally.
While the loudest applause has been won by Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan, Punjab’s Amarinder Singh has earned praise for making his police force implement the lockdown with sensitivity. Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot may not be doing a great job at PR but his alertness has so far prevented a bad situation in Bhilwara from exploding into community transmission.
Uddhav Thackeray has used the crisis to cement a working relationship with his alliance partners in Maharashtra and has thus earned praise for displaying maturity. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is using the opportunity to cement her attempts to be seen as governance-oriented rather than a politician fighting the onslaught of Hindutva. And Jharkhand’s Hemant Soren is standing out in making the lockdown bearable for the poor and preparing the state for potential outbreak of community transmission.
While the Modi government’s handling of coronavirus is being compared to its botched project of demonetisation, the opposition parties have an opportunity this time to show by contrast in the states ruled by them that they can do better than Modi. For instance, if Rahul Gandhi and the old guard could stop fighting in Delhi, the Congress could well highlight this contrast and take credit for it, thus shoring up its claim in national politics.
This will also need the national leadership of the Congress party to come out of Twitter and reach out to the masses, especially since the ‘North Korean’ media won’t amplify their voice. And it might help Rahul Gandhi that international flights are suspended.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.