We are told that politics in India has been suspended as we deal with the coronavirus pandemic. But it is only the politics of the opposition that has largely been suspended. The BJP, meanwhile, has been happily exploiting the opportunities provided by the pandemic into ever-larger political capital.
Two themes have dominated public debate during the past month’s lockdown. Both mirror the two main aspects of the BJP’s political strategy— the personality cult of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Hindu-Muslim divide.
One, the narrative of Modi as protector and father figure. Modi, in this telling, enforced the lockdown in time and saved tens of thousands of lives. The abrupt announcement of the lockdown, without any consultation with opposition parties or even state governments, was meant to confer the sole political ownership of the decision to Modi and bolster this narrative. The pageantry of thalis and diyas also helped reinforce this idea of Modi’s reach and popularity, cutting across class and regional divides.
Two, the Hindu-Muslim polarisation has been even more intensely fuelled over the last month, with the BJP portraying itself as the only party willing to stand up to the ‘perfidious’ Muslims bent on undermining national interests. The BJP cynically pounced on the Tablighi Jamaat controversy and the Palghar lynching in Maharashtra, and through their media allies, made sure these issues captured popular imagination.
With the opposition unwilling to confront the Modi government on substantive issues of livelihoods and hunger, these other issues — framed in explicitly communal terms — quickly dominated national conversation. The propaganda around the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz has been especially successful, pulling even non-BJP voters into its net. It is unsurprising that the Tablighi Jamaat story, wrapped in language like ‘corona jihad’, has coincided (according to a CVoter poll) with a surge of popular approval of Modi’s handling of the pandemic.
A new opportunity for opposition
The wave of public approval, however, could be short-lived. Since the government is prone to war metaphors for this crisis, it is useful to remember that the war that catapulted Indira Gandhi to the peak of her popularity also sowed the seeds of her decline. It was the economic costs of the Pakistan war that partly led to the problem of inflation and unemployment that dented her popularity a few years later.
Once some normality is restored with the lifting of the lockdown, the full force of the economic costs of these measures would become visible.
The already sputtering economic growth would further deteriorate in the coming months, as per new International Monetary Fund predictions. Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy or CMIE has estimated that unemployment has already spiked to 26 per cent, with 14 crore people losing their jobs in the first few weeks of lockdown. It is unlikely that any section of the society would remain aloof to its detrimental effects. The Modi government’s welfare response, according to prominent economists, has been woefully inadequate and excluded large sections of the urban poor. So, the crisis that has presented the BJP with opportunity to further its own politics of ‘Brand Modi’ and religious polarisation, also presents opportunities to the opposition.
Suspension of politics looks good on Modi
The opposition faces a catch-22 situation. Suspension of politics at this time seems to be a safe strategy. But this safe strategy gives Modi an even longer rope to skirt accountability. Because of the apparently hegemonic force of the BJP’s narrative, any opposition to it runs the risk of being looked at as unabashed opportunism and even ‘anti-national’.
Covid-19 gives the moribund opposition a unique opportunity to resurrect itself, but it is too timid to claim it.
However, taking this risk is crucial now or opposition parties like the Congress risk further marginalisation. Urban and rural poor will be the worst hit by the economic cost of the pandemic, and represent a constituency the opposition can directly address. Unemployed or recently laid-off workers also would be eager to get their voices heard. Cynical as this may read, the crisis can bring the opposition back in business. It has a unique opportunity to underscore its importance among these voters by emerging as the voice of the poor and the marginalised.
Modi emerged unscathed from the 2016 demonetisation because the poor perceived the corrupt rich to have suffered even more than them. Now, the poor harbour no such illusions. This is a rare and unique opportunity for the opposition to rally behind the plank of class distress.
As Christophe Jaffrelot has argued, “…the impact of the lockdown may make social issues more prominent again in terms of class, at the expense of caste as well as religious identities and communal tendencies,”
Modi has gauged the increasing political costs of the lockdown and already given us a glimpse of his likely post-lockdown political template. By keeping all state chief ministers on board for a two-week extension of the lockdown, he has sought to spread the risk of the political fallout federally. His direct addresses to the nation, which appear frustrating in their lack of clarity or detail, also allow him to expertly distance himself from the messy business of actually implementing the lockdown. Thus, while state leaders are answerable for shoddy preparation, persistent hunger and continuing migrant crisis, the Prime Minister wins accolades for a swift and timely lockdown to contain the virus.
Especially when one compares the situation in India to that of more advanced countries such as the US, Italy and Spain, credit attribution becomes even more advantageous for Modi.
Opposition can’t delay
An inert opposition cannot miraculously hope to corner the government after the crisis; it has to remain proactive through the current situation. The Congress’ recent lumbering attempts at criticism couched as ‘constructive advice’ come across as meek and innocuous suggestions, rather than potent political questioning. Others like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have completely abandoned their turf.
There is no democracy without accountability. And when tens of millions of citizens are struggling for their basic survival, the opposition’s primary duty of demanding political accountability becomes even more urgent, not less. The opposition’s abdication of this duty is not just craven and counterproductive, it is inimical to its own political interests. It must do more, if not for the poor, then at least to secure its own political futures.
Asim Ali and Ankita Barthwal are research associates at Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.