For once, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal might have got the better of the political guru he wouldn’t acknowledge — Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During a meeting of the chief ministers with the PM last Friday, Kejriwal chose to livestream his remarks, drawing rebuke from Modi for breaching the ‘protocol’ and the ‘tradition’ of an ‘in-house meeting.’
Given that the PM’s remarks at the meetings with CMs over Covid-19 are always livestreamed, it was difficult to understand why a CM’s remarks about the state of affairs be treated as a violation of protocol or a secret. The PM is not known to get upset — not publicly, at least. What might have upset him was Kejriwal’s obvious attempt to shift the blame for his government’s failures onto the Centre. And he was doing it cleverly — by pleading for the Centre’s help to meet oxygen requirements in Delhi hospitals. The CM apologised to Modi but won the battle of optics.
Losing the narrative war
This brief exchange at the PM-CMs meet gave an inkling of how the second Covid wave has got the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre on a sticky wicket. A party that celebrated Modi’s victory over the coronavirus until recently seems to be fumbling as it seeks to set the narrative — its forte once.
That’s because the BJP has always had a set template to build a positive narrative, no matter how bad the reality on the ground is. And the strongest of them was what was aptly summed up in the All is Well song in Amir Khan-starrer 3 Idiots. Remember the song “Jab life ho out of control, honthon ko karke gol, sitee bajaa ke bol all izz well?” As this writer and his family remain in isolation, nervously watching scenes outside hospitals on TV and social media, the next line of the song gives the creeps: “Murgi kya jaane ande ka kya hoga/life milegi ya tawe par fry hoga/koi na jaane apnaa future kya hoga/honthon ko karke gol, sitee bajaa ke bol, all izz well.”
Personal demons apart, the all-is-well narrative really worked in the past. Be it the demonetisation of high-value currency notes or continuous economic downslide, people forgot all problems, with Modi’s all-is-well assurance and promise to make India a $5-trillion economy—just as a seemingly stillborn baby started kicking after hearing Amir Khan say the three words in 3 Idiots. As the second wave of Covid infections has hit India like a storm — with the much-touted revamp of the health infrastructure coming to nought — nothing is going well for the ruling party to croon that song.
70 years versus five years
The second pillar of the ruling party’s narrative used to be the ‘70 years versus five/seven years’. All those decades of opposition parties’ rule were a waste. It was left to the Modi government to ramp up the health infrastructure when the coronavirus hit the country. Even petrol and diesel prices remain high because no government in the past did anything to reduce oil import dependence.
As it was, nothing worthwhile happened in India for 70 years since the Independence till 2014 — 67 years to be precise. Having taken credit for putting in a robust public health infrastructure in place to ‘defeat’ the coronavirus last year, the BJP can’t blame the opposition for the utter lack of preparedness for the second wave.
Apart from the failures of successive governments in 70 years, the BJP leaders found many other issues to set the agenda — Tablighis as alleged super-spreaders, Chinese origin of the virus, and mismanagement by non-BJP governments (remember Amit Shah’s interventions in Aam Aadmi Party-ruled Delhi and the Central teams’ findings in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana?), among others. There is nothing to differentiate between governments on party lines today. If Maharashtra, Delhi and Chhattisgarh are witnessing a surge in infections — and crumbling of the health infrastructure — so are Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. If patients are dying in Delhi hospitals for lack of oxygen, so are those in Haryana. And instead of Tablighis, TV screens carried pictures of sadhus taking Kumbh snan and top BJP leaders addressing huge election rallies.
Can’t even bash Rahul Gandhi
Last but not the least, the BJP always relied on Rahul Gandhi, the opposition’s face, to give it a talking point. But, for a change, the Congress leader has been on top of the game right from the beginning of the Covid crisis last year. Who could have ever believed that the BJP would end up emulating Gandhi who had cancelled poll rallies in West Bengal, citing the Covid threat? Also, who could ever think that BJP leaders would feel political insecurity from the Covid relief works done by Youth Congress president Srinivas BV and AAP MLA Dilip Pandey?
Where the BJP seems to be losing the plot is in its failure to change its narrative as per the changing situations. So when the Modi government is facing the heat, it’s the same old tactic being deployed — opposition-bashing and singing paeans of Modi.
The scale of the fresh Covid challenge is too big to be managed with polemics and sophistry. The best strategy for the BJP would be to take a cue from its political adversaries like Srinivas and Pandey, and deploy million of its workers on the ground to bring relief to the people. This is no time for perception management. It is time for proactive public health management.
Views are personal.
Edited by Anurag Chaubey