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BJP has its post-second wave politics ready — from perception to expectation management

Rahul Gandhi may be pointing fingers at vaccine shortage, but if the PM knows one thing it is fixing delivery before polls.

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On Saturday, Bharatiya Janata Party president J.P. Nadda looked like a man in control as he presided over a high-level meeting at the BJP headquarters: Flanked by his predecessors, home minister Amit Shah on the left and defence minister Rajnath Singh on his right, followed by nine other senior ministers seated on both sides. Nadda was discussing assembly poll preparations in five states — Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa, and Manipur. Nadda, BJP leaders said, took stock of social security schemes and infrastructure projects in the poll-bound states.

Critics may argue it was more optics than substance. If it was about infrastructure, how come Union minister for road transport and highways and micro, small and medium enterprises, Nitin Gadkari, wasn’t present in that meeting? Where was the power minister? And no one to talk about the health infrastructure! How come BJP leaders, in-charge of these states, weren’t invited to this meeting? And nobody from those states — BJP rules four of those five — was there to share feedback. When Nadda was reportedly discussing schemes and projects in poll-bound states, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath was in a virtual meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, discussing the progress of projects in Ayodhya.

Anyway, there have been many such meetings at the BJP headquarters, of late. In the past four weeks, there has been a flurry of activity at both the government and the party levels — the PM meeting ministers in batches to review their works, BJP crisis managers air-dashing to states witnessing internecine battles, and the BJP top brass holding a series of meetings with ministers and party functionaries.

They give an impression of urgency in the government and the party to set their houses in order, after they were caught like a deer in the headlights during the second wave of the pandemic. Some sceptics may question the results of these meetings, as former Union minister Arun Shourie once said, quoting Urdu poet Akbar Allahabadi: “Plateon ke aane ki awaaz toh aa rahi hai, khaana nahi aa raha (one hears the sound of plates but food is not coming).”

It may be partly true in today’s context, too. After all, what has changed in the past one month?

Also read: Focus on infra projects, tour poll-bound states: Nadda tells ministers as BJP preps for 2022 polls

Expectation management

If Modi was expected to revamp his team for “better capacity augmentation for future challenges”, he doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. Discrediting the opposition parties still remains the NDA government’s top priority. As for the BJP, the leadership is still busy firefighting in states, with even a powerful CM such as Yogi Adityanath not getting endorsement from his ministers for his second term.

Having said that, one thing has certainly changed for the Modi government and the BJP since the second wave of the pandemic started receding. They are back in headlines, not for ‘missing in action’ but for being in action, regardless of the outcome. Critics may call it perception or headline management, but the ruling dispensation has created a buzz again, rekindling interest in governance ahead of the third wave of the pandemic and curiosity about its electoral strategy post-Bengal debacle.

BJP strategists also seem to be working on another plan — expectation management. No more triumphalism. Listen carefully to the underlying messages from the Prime Minister in the last three episodes of Mann Ki Baat. The ‘toofan’ of coronavirus has ravaged not just India, but the entire world. His heart breaks in despair to see the people’s sufferings. But no government can do much about a virus that is ‘bahurupiya’. However much he wants, he can’t fix the public health infrastructure that his predecessors left in a mess for 70 years (not counting the last seven years). Or so the BJP would have the people believe. They must also believe that he will provide for the people what he has done to protect himself and his mother—vaccination.

The BJP can talk about the people’s PM: There is no difference between him, his mother and other 130 crore Indians; they are equally safe or equally vulnerable. And if that is the only shield available to humankind against this deadly virus, those who spread “negative rumours” – no prize guessing who — weaken the fight against the pandemic. Meanwhile, the BJP must try to put the blame at the opposition’s door for everything that went wrong or is going wrong. It used an “interim” oxygen audit report to slam Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government for inflating its oxygen requirement, adversely affecting oxygen supply in 12 states at the peak of Covid-19 second wave. “Had this oxygen been used in other states, many lives could have been saved,” BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra said. 

The very next day, AIIMS chief Randeep Guleria, who led the sub-group that prepared the report, was at pains to clarify that people should wait for “the final report” and not jump to conclusions about Delhi government exaggerating its oxygen requirement. It was too late by then. The AAP government’s ‘false alarm’ affecting oxygen supply in many states had made it to the headlines and it was now for lakhs of WhatsApp group administrators to spread the message forward, no matter what Guleria had to say.

Also read: Why India’s record vaccinations this week may not stop a deadly third wave

As the opposition continued to target the NDA government for vaccine mismanagement, the ruling party came up with a humdinger of a quick-fix solution. On 21 June, Modi celebrated “record-breaking vaccination” (86 lakhs), leaving it to minister Smriti Irani to suggest a day later how Congress-ruled states “did the worst” in vaccination even as the country created a world record. In a nutshell, what the BJP would have the people believe again is that it’s the opposition that’s dragging the country down in vaccination. Critics might carp about low vaccination to ‘hoard’ vials in BJP-ruled states ahead of 21 June, how the Centre provided them extra doses for that day and how the vaccination numbers came significantly in the days right after breaking the record. But the world record and Congress-ruled states’ performance were already recorded in the annals of WhatsApp and other social media platforms.

Also read: To defeat Modi, an idea, ideology or joint show of hands isn’t enough. A face is needed

What Rahul Gandhi isn’t seeing

Now that’s the narrative PM Modi has built since the second Covid wave peaked. Rahul Gandhi sought to puncture this narrative, describing Sunday’s Mann Ki Baat as a diversionary tactic and demanding an end to vaccine shortage. The Congress leader’s dismissive tone probably comes from his belief—shared by a lot of Modi rivals—that people won’t forget the failures of the government during the first and second waves of the pandemic, and the third wave will make them angrier. Jury is out on this point, but for now, Gandhi may be underestimating Modi, yet again.

Modi’s initial foreign vaccine hesitancy owing to his preference for India-made vaccines might have hurt India’s fight against the pandemic—and also the government’s image—but he has gotten over it now. Modi’s governance model can be faulted on many counts, but he has an outstanding record when it comes to delivery. There may be supply side constraints today, but trust him to sort them out long before the next round of elections. If Modi sees vaccination as the only way to revitalise his Covid-hit politics, Rahul Gandhi must pin his hopes on something better than vaccine shortage.

The author tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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