Amid the gloom and doom of the Covid-19 pandemic, one unlikely but positive development has emerged — the increasing bitterness, combativeness and pettiness of Indian politics has been put on hold, with a more collaborative, mature and measured side on display.
Political parties across the spectrum have cooperated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government, offering constructive feedback instead of mindless barbs. State governments across party lines have engaged positively with the Centre, and vice versa, bringing out the true spirit of ‘cooperative federalism’ that Narendra Modi repeatedly talked about since coming to power in 2014, but was not seen so far.
Politics in India has been excessively bitter in the past few years, with politicians calling each other names, resorting to personal attacks and generally refusing to engage in civilised debates or disagreements — most vividly on display during elections — and largely divided into a Narendra Modi-Amit Shah’s BJP versus its rivals.
One doesn’t have to look too far to see how dysfunctional relations between states ruled by opposition parties and Modi’s central government have been. Delhi is a textbook example, with Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal constantly at loggerheads with the Centre, something that he was forced to alter due to political calculations in 2019 after being in power for nearly five years.
With Covid-19, however, it isn’t just the air quality, but also India’s politics that has come out of the red zone.
The coronavirus era
In the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, India’s political parties are displaying a level of maturity that has become rare for them.
On Saturday, PM Modi held an interaction with several chief ministers through video conferencing on extending the lockdown. It was a civilised, productive conversation with all sides exchanging feedback, giving suggestions and looking for the best possible solution.
Punjab’s Amarinder Singh, West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, Maharashtra’s Uddhav Thackeray, Delhi’s Kejriwal and Telangana’s K Chandrashekar Rao, among others, are all from rival parties who have had bitter squabbles with Modi-Shah’s BJP in the past, and yet, a quest to ensure a smooth, productive dialogue was on display during the meeting.
In fact, Kejriwal even praised Modi on Twitter for extending the lockdown beyond 14 April, although an official announcement of the extension is yet to be made. This is in stark difference to a time when Kejriwal had publicly called Modi “a coward and a psychopath”.
Chief ministers across party lines hold regular press briefings on the Covid-19 situation in their respective states, but without blaming the Centre or the BJP. Similarly, Modi has held at least four addresses, and stayed away from indulging in petty politics.
Meanwhile, Congress president Sonia Gandhi — among the most vociferous critics of Narendra Modi, his politics and governance — has written letters to the prime minister with suggestions, while assuring full support of her party.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi took a divergent line from the old guard and began by slamming the Modi government for its poor handling of the pandemic. But gradually, Rahul Gandhi seems to have toned down the belligerence for a constructive stance, urging Modi to adopt a more “nuanced approach” in dealing with the crisis. He even termed Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s economic package for the poor as a “step in the right direction”.
Disagreements are fair, and in fact, essential to a democracy. It is only when they become more compulsive and acrid that the situation becomes untenable.
The ‘cooperative federalism’ that Modi has constantly espoused, but one that has not been followed either by him — considering his government’s high-handed approach — or by a forever combative opposition, is finally taking the spotlight.
A sharp contrast from the past
When was the last time, at least since 2014, that one saw political parties across the spectrum engage positively?
The 2019 Lok Sabha election was among the most vicious in Indian politics. From trolling the dead and brazen personal attacks to unapologetic sexism — the poll campaign saw it all.
So, while Rahul Gandhi had no qualms calling the PM a “thief” repeatedly, Modi struck a low-blow by dragging his dead father and former PM Rajiv Gandhi into the campaign fight by calling him ‘Bhrashtachari number 1′.
There were loose comments by political leaders of different hues throughout the campaign season.
All in all, the 2019 Lok Sabha election was a reflection of our pungent political times. The most recent 2020 Delhi assembly was as brutal and acerbic.
The Modi-Shah duo, meanwhile, has been at the forefront of making Indian politics petty and savage.
But just when it began to seem that political leaders in India had completely forgotten how to be civil and work together, the Covid-19 crisis arrived and it appears to have reversed the scenario a bit, at least for now. Perhaps India’s politicians realise that their enemy — a virus that is far more dangerous and potent than what the politicians might consider each other — won’t choose sides and can only be defeated if they fight as one.
Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.