For the last seven years, they have been projected as India’s jodi number one: prime minister Narendra Modi as the larger than life strongman leader and home minister Amit Shah as the BJP’s chief election strategist have carried an aura of near invincibility. If Mr Modi and his governance model have been identified with catchy buzzwords like ‘achche din’ and ‘new’ India, Mr Shah has been branded as a modern day Chanakya. However, the last month has dented the well cultivated imagery: if the Covid 2.0 crisis has raised serious questions over the prime minister’s governance style, the BJP’s West Bengal debacle has punctured Amit Shah’s boast of being a master at winning elections.
Take Covid 2.0. A pandemic offers no easy solutions and spares no one but can it be denied that the domineering political executive at the Centre has been behind the curve in the Covid fight? Then be it green signaling potentially super spreader events like the Kumbh Mela, the utterly confused vaccine policy or the botch up over oxygen supplies, the Modi government stands accused of fumbling and bumbling at every turn. An all-powerful government which claims to be adept at micro-management is struggling to co-ordinate, communicate and execute a concrete national plan of action.
That it has taken repeated Court interventions to goad the Centre into acting swiftly reveals the failings of a highly bureaucratic style of functioning that appears trapped in its own echo chamber of complacency and hubris. That Rahul Gandhi, often lampooned as ‘Pappu’ by the BJP’s hyper-active IT cells, has been pressing most of the right buttons on Covid should be a cause of further embarrassment. Even the much-vaunted Gujarat model stands exposed by the long queues of ambulances outside state hospitals, a grim reminder of the darker side of a development paradigm that didn’t invest enough in public health.
Hype has been confused with reality in West Bengal too. The BJP marched into the election like an all-conquering army, backed by massive resources, institutional support and a media blitzkrieg that suggested a landslide victory. Buoyed by their gains in the 2019 Bengal elections, the BJP seemed convinced that chief minister Mamata Banerjee would simply roll over and be vanquished. For Shah in particular, the ‘conquest’ of Bengal was a personal mission, one where his crucial role as union home minister in a national crisis appeared to lose out to his persona as an aggressive party campaigner. When as home minister he should have been co-ordinating with all states on Covid protocols, there was an all-consuming ambition to first capture another opposition-ruled state. When he should have been bunkered down in the home ministry, he was addressing large roadshows in the dust-tracks of Bengal with no masks or social distancing.
Here again, there was an unmistakable arrogance in approach, a failure to recognize that a Vidhan Sabha election is fought on a very different terrain to a Lok Sabha battle. The sharply divisive ‘Jai Shri Ram’ war-cry which proved so effective in 2019 appeared out of sync in a highly localized election that was calling out for a more ear to the ground grassroot style of politics. Without a strong, credible Bengal face, the BJP lured key lieutenants of the chief minister to switch sides exposing their own limitations of symbolizing an ‘Asol Poribortan’ (real change) on the ground. As it turned out, a lone Mamata Banerjee on a wheelchair versus the BJP’s muscular men on a chariot only mirrored a compelling narrative of Bengali sub-nationalism: a rooted popular Bengali speaking mass leader taking on the might of the Hindi speaking ‘outsiders’.
So is the ‘Jodi number one’ on the retreat? Yes and no. Despite the criticism of the failings of the Modi government in handling the pandemic, the prime minister remains a highly popular leader whose mass connect isn’t going to evaporate overnight. Likewise as a consummate 24 x7 politician, Shah will gear up to fight the next big electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh. Reports of their imminent political demise are exaggerated. Bengal 2021 is not quite yet India 2024. Every election plays out very differently and three years is a very long time in Indian politics.
And yet, under-playing mounting citizen anger at a collapse in basic health services would be politically foolhardy. When a health emergency has put lakhs of people on ventilator, a central government cannot, to quote the Delhi high court, ‘be living in ivory towers’. When people are desperately struggling for oxygen and ICU beds, there needs to be a genuine reach out to address their grievances with empathy and common sense and not through typical bureaucratic apathy or crafty perception management. An authoritarian mindset that views any criticism as ‘anti-national’ is dangerous when the country is gasping for oxygen: what stops the prime minister, for example, from bringing together the finest minds in the country across key sectors from medicine to science to business to politics in an inclusive endeavor to identify mistakes and course correct? Is this not an ideal moment to decentralize decision-making and build bridges with those who might have useful, even if contrarian views?
Unfortunately, the strongman model of political leadership is often unwilling to accept blunders and take responsibility. Rather than pass the buck, Messrs Modi-Shah need to do a mea culpa, fix accountability and ring in the changes. Can, for example, the health minister, the affable but clearly clueless Dr Harshvardhan get away by claiming only last month that the country had sufficient stock of vaccines when alarm bells were already ringing across state capitals that vaccine supplies were running out? This is the same health minister who in early March cheerfully claimed that the world was witnessing an ‘end-game’ to the pandemic. A ministerial resignation and core team transfers isn’t going to stop the virus spread but might just signal that the Modi government is acutely conscious of enraged public sentiments. The ‘achche din’ bubble has been well and truly pricked by the smoke and ash that bursts out of funeral pyres across the country: the nation wants to know who will bear the cross for an unimaginable tragedy.
Post-script: Covid 2.0 also calls for an urgent redrawing of priorities. Earlier this week, the Indian Premier League, cricket’s wealthiest extravaganza, was suspended after a few players tested Covid positive. A high-profile sports event in Covid times was always going to be a high risk venture. So here is another suggestion: why not also halt the construction of the central vista in the national capital, a grandiose vanity project, when health risks facing the construction workers should be prioritised?