There was huge public outrage over the weekend when Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav said he will not take the “BJP’s vaccine”. The first thought one might have after hearing this is the aphorism: “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” There are different accounts of the origin of this aphorism and whether it was Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain who said it. But there is no doubt about its relevance in India’s contemporary politics, especially in the context of the opposition camp.
When Akhilesh Yadav made the remark at a press conference Saturday afternoon, he probably meant it to be a wisecrack, if not bravado. He had Hindu, Muslim and Sikh dharma gurus from Ayodhya around him. It was supposed to be a show of his inclusive political philosophy. With the construction of Ram Mandir expected to be in full swing at the time Uttar Pradesh goes to polls in 2022, the Samajwadi Party (SP) chief was preparing to project his vision of ‘Ram Rajya’. He must have been bamboozled by the question on the Covid vaccine. His wisecrack spoilt what he had planned to achieve by having religious leaders by his side.
The former Uttar Pradesh chief minister was naïve if he didn’t foresee that his ‘BJP’s vaccine’ comment would make headlines, and not his jibe at the ruling party for its “unscientific taali-thaali thinking.” The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was quick to seize the opportunity, calling his remark an “insult to the doctors and scientists of the country.” Never mind the claims by Union ministers and BJP legislators about cow dung and cow urine curing not just coronavirus infection but also cancer. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliates organised gau mutra parties to ward off the virus. The BJP and its ideological brethren and patrons could be selective in their scientific temperament, for sure.
Why Akhilesh Yadav may not lose politically
It might be an afterthought but Samajwadi Party insiders soon discovered a sound rationale for Akhilesh’s controversial comment. They don’t see it causing any harm to his political prospects. If at all, it should pitchfork Akhilesh and his party as the principal opponent of the BJP, they say. The SP has been giving the BJP a run for its money in assembly bypolls. Last month, the BJP lost two Legislative Council seats — one each in graduates and teachers’ constituency — to the SP in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency.
Akhilesh is apparently upping the ante to consolidate anti-BJP votes in his favour. With Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati sounding conciliatory towards the ruling party and new players like the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) of Asaduddin Owaisi seeking to make forays into UP, Akhilesh’s ‘political vaccine’ comment might have hit the right chord with anti-BJP voters, claim his spin masters. About 50 per cent of those who voted in UP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election opted for the BJP and nearly 40 per cent in the 2017 assembly election. The SP chief would like to emerge as the major, if not the sole, claimant of the remaining votes.
Opposition’s peeve about ‘BJP’s vaccine’
No one can argue against the fact that Akhilesh Yadav was irresponsible in his comment because it might spread fear about vaccines at a time when our public representatives need to build confidence in it. Remember US President-elect Joe Biden getting the vaccine injected live on television? That’s how our leaders must be, instilling confidence in the people that their ordeal is about to end. The SP chief erred big time with his ‘BJP’s vaccine’ comment, no matter how his spin doctors project it.
But the episode also highlights the peeve among opposition leaders about the BJP winning the battle of public perception in Covid-19 management. They have reasons to feel glum because they didn’t get many takers for their line of attack on the government: the Narendra Modi government was late in reacting to the imminent virus threat, purportedly because of its pre-occupation with US President Donald Trump’s much-trumpeted ‘Namaste Trump’ event; it mismanaged the nationwide lockdown, forcing lakhs of migrant labourers to trudge hundreds of kilometres to get home; it sought to earn brownies by the ‘taali-thaali event’ and then adopted a hands-off approach by passing on the responsibility of Covid management to state governments; it targeted opposition-ruled states for mismanagement while ignoring the same by the BJP-led governments; and, it blamed the virus for its incompetence and failures in managing the economy.
In December, when Modi visited the Bharat BioTech facility in Hyderabad, which was working on Covaxin, and the Serum Institute in Pune, which was partnering with global pharma giants to develop a vaccine, Covishield, many in the opposition thought it was for mere optics. They cribbed in private how the PM was seeking to make political dividends out of the efforts of scientists. But isn’t that what a politician does or is supposed to do — to be seen as leading from the front? And our prime minister is a 24×7 politician.
Why opposition leaders are behaving like ‘headless chickens’
In 2007, India’s envoy to the US at the time, Ronen Sen, had raised a political storm back home by likening the opponents of the India-US nuclear deal to a “headless chicken”. The metaphor aptly summarises opposition leaders’ behaviour today. Akhilesh Yadav’s remarks would please the BJP to no end. The SP leader has managed to give a saffron colour to the Covid vaccine and BJP leaders must struggle very hard to hide their glee.
It’s not the first time an opposition leader has fallen into the BJP trap. When India launched the surgical strikes against terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) in 2016, in the run-up to the UP assembly election, BJP strategists were almost waiting for the Congress to question it. The opposition party obliged soon; the BJP pounced om the opportunity to slam the opposition for questioning the valour of the armed forces. The same happened after the Balakot strike ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election when opposition leaders started seeking evidence of the number of casualties on the other side.
In 2019, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government scrapped the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the state into two union territories, Union Home Minister Amit Shah chose to do it in the Rajya Sabha where the leader of the opposition was Ghulam Nabi Azad, the former chief minister of J&K. The Upper House of Parliament has opposition members with strong ideological convictions and liberal values and they don’t have to contest direct elections. As angry opposition leaders rose to attack the government for taking away J&K’s special status, Shah’s face looked radiant with joy and satisfaction of a strategist whose plans were falling into place.
Even with the Covid-19 vaccine, the BJP owned it up politically for the first time by promising the vaccine free of cost in its Bihar poll manifesto. The party strategists must have been waiting with bated breath for opposition leaders to somehow credit the BJP with the vaccines, which were ostensibly developed on Modi’s watch. Remember his visit to Hyderabad and Pune? On Sunday, India’s drug regulator approved Covishield, a vaccine developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and manufactured in India by the Serum Institute, a private company. It was great news for the public but not good enough for vaccine nationalists. Lo and behold, India’s drug regulator also put a stamp of approval to Covaxin, an indigenously developed vaccine, even without the required data of its efficacy because its Phase 3 trials are yet to be completed. As opposition leaders questioned the decision, BJP president J.P. Nadda slammed them, saying, “The Congress and the opposition is not proud of anything Indian.”
It’s the beginning of vaccine nationalism. As it goes in full swing in the coming days and months, opposition leaders can’t but duck for cover. Akhilesh Yadav must get the credit for being the first to create the ‘BJP’s vaccine’, at his own and the entire opposition’s cost.
Views are personal.