There are three factors that should keep the supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party cheerful even amid Covid-19 outbreak: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is at the peak of his popularity; Union home minister Amit Shah continues to run the party by proxy; and the opposition parties, as usual, are in disarray.
And yet the mood in the ruling camp is far from upbeat. They couldn’t but notice how PM Modi chose not to address the nation to declare the second extension of the lockdown last week; he left it to the home ministry to issue a press release. As my colleague Rama Lakshmi pointed out in a column on Sunday, PM Modi has got all the accolades for taking the bold decision of imposing the nationwide lockdown and knows that further extensions will now bring diminishing political returns.
There is a growing realisation in the ruling dispensation that no amount of pep talk, bravado, clanging of utensils or flypasts would keep the people from asking questions if the pandemic stays for a prolonged period. The inanity of the Modi government making life and livelihood an either-or question with a neither-nor binary would be etched in public memory for years to come. As science journalist and author Laura Spinney wrote in her 2017 book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World: “We remember wars and then gradually forget them, while we forget pandemics and then gradually remember them.”
BJP leaders aren’t bothered about the long-term public memory, though. They trust Modi to set a new narrative at the time of his choice and also the people to forgive and forget like they did post-demonetisation. After all, the next Lok Sabha election is four years away.
BJP CMs’ uninspiring records
What should worry the party is the failure of its chief ministers to rise to the occasion and become Modi’s ambassadors who could deliver in times of crises. The CMs who have emerged as doughty corona warriors are mostly from non-BJP-ruled states — Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Capt. Amarinder Singh in Punjab, Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh, and Edappadi Palaniswami in Tamil Nadu. Only Sarbananda Sonowal in Assam and Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana are among those who have managed to put up a good show for the BJP. It’s not about the extent of the spread of infection; it’s about how promptly and efficiently the CMs responded to it.
Although Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s decision to not attend his father’s funeral out of “a sense of duty towards the state’s 23 crore people” generated a lot of goodwill for him and the Covid-19 positive cases in the state are also relatively low, the jury is out on his performance because it’s only in the past few days that Uttar Pradesh has increased testing. As on 25 April, tests-per-million in UP were one of the lowest in India — 246 as against the national average of 483. By 2 May, UP’s testing rate went up to 425 per million as against the all-India average of 758 per million. The much-hyped Agra model of Covid-19 management has come a cropper. Adityanath is now facing flak for allegedly “communalising” the crisis by naming hotspots in Lucknow after the mosques in those areas.
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In Madhya Pradesh, the party faces the charge, and rightly so, of prioritising power politics over public health, which might have cost many lives.
BJP-led Gujarat has earned the dubious distinction of having the highest mortality rate—262 deaths out of 5,055 confirmed cases till Saturday. The Vijay Rupani government’s intervention has been extremely patchy, as my colleagues Simrin Sirur and Praveen Jain reported from the ground in Ahmedabad last week. When the state machinery needed to be geared up to fight Covid-19, the entire focus was on organising ‘Namaste Trump’ event and then on engineering defections in the Congress to deny it a seat in Rajya Sabha.
Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa relatively handled the Covid-19 threat better but made headlines for all the wrong reasons — grand wedding ceremony of minister B. Sriramulu’s daughter, CM attending the wedding function of a BJP MLA’s son, the government allowing former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy’s son’s wedding ceremony, infighting among ministers, border row with Kerala, et al.
The worst among the NDA-ruled states has been Bihar. At a video-conference with Union minister Prahlad Joshi last Wednesday, BJP MPs from the state vented out their ire against chief minister Nitish Kumar for his indifferent administrative response to the Covid-19 crisis. Worse, the MPs complained, the chief minister’s resistance to bringing back home Bihari migrants and students stranded in other states had damaged the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s credentials irreparably ahead of the assembly election. “Biharis are caught between the devil (the JDU) and the deep sea (the RJD). But the high command has already taken a decision (by declaring Nitish Kumar the CM candidate). Modi ji remains our only hope,” a senior BJP leader who attended the meeting with Joshi told this writer.
The performance of NDA chief ministers should worry the BJP because the people have started voting differently in Lok Sabha and assembly elections, clearly making a distinction between the leader, Narendra Modi, and his party.
BJP’s high commandist culture to blame
It would be convenient to blame the chief ministers for the state of affairs but do they deserve it?
Gujarat is run from Delhi, through CM Vijay Rupani’s chief principal secretary K. Kailashnathan, a Modi confidante. In Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan might have taken the lead to topple the Congress government but he is battling the Covid-19 crisis with his hands tied. It was not his decision to act like a ‘Super CM’ for weeks as the Covid-19 situation exacerbated in Madhya Pradesh. He wasn’t exactly in Delhi’s power coterie and so he was left to fend for himself once the task of ousting Kamal Nath had been achieved.
After much public outcry, Shivraj Chouhan was given a mini-cabinet but that hasn’t made his task easier. He had to allot home and health portfolios to Narottam Mishra who is considered close to Amit Shah. Mishra’s ambition is no secret. His supporters were shouting slogans — ‘hamara mukhya mantri kaisa ho, Narottam Mishra jaisa ho (Our CM should be like Narottam Mishra)’ — outside the BJP headquarters in Bhopal when the former CM was seeking to get elected as the legislature party leader.
In Karnataka, Yediyurappa couldn’t be denied the CM’s chair because he was instrumental in Kumaraswamy government’s fall but he has failed to win Modi-Shah’s confidence, resulting in a free-for-all fight in his government. In Bihar, Amit Shah had declared Nitish Kumar the CM candidate. However much the state BJP leaders may resent it today, they must learn to live with it and hope that the fear of Lalu Yadav’s ‘jungle raj’ makes up for the inefficiency and growing unpopularity of Nitish Kumar.
Does it matter if some NDA CMs come a cropper in the Covid-19 management? On the face of it, no. Not for Modi at least, whose popularity rating during the outbreak has only soared. But the crisis could still accelerate the BJP’s journey downhill, which started from its defeat in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December 2018. The next assembly election is slated in October-November in Bihar. It will be followed by elections in five states in April 2021 — Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Of these, elections in the last three are immaterial to the BJP, simply because it has no stakes in those states. The party seems to be comfortably placed in Assam where the coronavirus hasn’t emerged as a big public health threat yet.
Elections in Bihar and West Bengal, ruled by the NDA and the Trinamool Congress, will be crucial. Given how the opposition in Bihar is in tatters and caste equations heavily favour the NDA, the results would be the first indicator of the electoral implications of the government’s crisis management. In West Bengal, the Centre and governor Jagdeep Dhankar have done their best to highlight Mamata Banerjee government’s alleged attempts to play down the Covid-19 threat by minimal testing and data manipulation, following which there has been a major turnaround in the state’s response to the crisis since.
Although the BJP exceeded expectations by winning 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal in 2019, the point to note was that Mamata Banerjee managed to hold her ground, relatively, despite the ‘Modi wave’. The BJP will not have a local face to match her in the 2021 assembly election. The results in West Bengal would be another indicator of whether Covid-19 could play a disrupter in the traditional poll equations.
But instead of waiting for voters in Bihar and West Bengal to send indicators, the BJP had better ask its chief ministers to pay heed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s advice: Never let a good crisis go to waste.
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