New Delhi: After remaining conspicuously absent from public view for almost the whole period of the coronavirus-induced lockdown, Union home minister Amit Shah has returned to his old role. By leading two back-to-back virtual political rallies – one for Bihar and the other for Odisha – on Sunday and Monday, Shah, in a way, has announced that the days of partisan politics – stalled abruptly by the pandemic – are back.
His return comes at a time when the Union government is drawing flak from all corners. The poorly-planned lockdown, according to most experts, has miserably failed to contain the spread of the virus. At the same time, the period witnessed the economy plummet like never before, pushing a majority of the Indian masses towards abject penury and helplessness.
Such have been the losses that the Union government was forced to roll back the lockdown restrictions at a time when COVID-19 cases continue to rise at an alarming rate.
Still, in such circumstances, the Narendra Modi government has found time to engineer defections in the opposition ranks. It did not announce a lockdown until the BJP ousted the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh with the help of rebel MLAs. More recently, the resignations of three Congress legislators in one of the worst COVID-19-affected states, Gujarat, ahead of the upcoming Rajya Sabha elections are seen as engineered by the BJP. With the three MLAs resigning, the Congress, which was comfortably placed to win two of the four seats in the upper house, may struggle to win even one.
By the rulebook
In the two virtual political rallies, Shah played by his party’s rulebook. In poll-bound Bihar, even as he asserted that the virtual rally wasn’t aimed at the elections and that it was only an effort to connect people with the Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign, he proudly asserted, “Under Nitish Kumar’s leadership, the NDA will come to power with two-thirds majority in the coming elections in Bihar.”
The main opposition party in the state, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, said holding a political rally at this time could be equated to the ruling party ‘celebrating’ the devastation caused by the lockdown. Declaring the day as “Garib Adhikar Diwas”, it staged protests, clanging utensils and blowing conches ahead of Shah’s rally.
However, Shah cleverly denied any accountability and instead blamed the opposition. He said that the opposition indulged in petty politics. “Some people welcomed today’s virtual rally by clanging thalis [plates]. I am glad they finally heard PM Modi’s appeal to show gratitude towards those fighting COVID-19,” he said, as he took a dig at the opposition party. Diverting attention from the migrant labour crisis that has affected Bihar like no other state, Shah chose to question the opposition leaders on what they had done for people in comparison to the Modi government instead of addressing the people’s current concerns.
In the virtual rally aimed at Odisha, he admitted to the Centre’s failures but soon evaded responsibility by taking a dig at the opposition.
“Some short-sighted people, some people in the opposition… I want to ask them… there may have been lapses on our part, but our commitment was clear. We may have made a mistake, we may have fallen short, we may not have been able to do something. But what did you do? Someone talks in Sweden, in English, to fight against corona in the country. Someone talks in America. What did you do? Give an account to the people of the country. I have come to give an account. When the corona crisis hit, the Narendra Modi government gave a package of Rs 1,70,000 crore for 60 crore people, for the people of the country. You ask us questions? Apart from interviews, the Congress did nothing,” he said.
Deflecting questions on governance
Over the past two months, the opposition has done what an opposition usually does in a democracy. In the face of a situation where the Centre was accused of hiding information, it asked crucial questions about its plan to tackle the virus and the economic impact of the lockdown. It also pushed the Centre to ramp up testing and put pressure on the Modi government to address the migrant worker crisis.
But the BJP establishment at the Centre never gave clear answers. It either rubbished issues raised by the opposition as dramebaazi, or simply deflected the questions.
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Shah’s first two political rallies reflected a similar strategy. Ostensibly aimed at promoting the Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign, the home minister not only diverted questions related to the pandemic, but also brought up politically-contentious issues like Article 370, Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, Triple Talaq, surgical strike, Citizenship (Amendment) Act and listed them as achievements of the Modi government.
The BJP has employed the twin-strategy of blaming the opposition with a constant focus on Hindu nationalism with great success. Over the last six years, the Modi-Shah duo has used the method without any break to secure an electoral advantage.
The pandemic forced it to suspend its workings for almost three months. Both the party and the Modi government have had to face multiple questions on the governance front. Throughout the lockdown, the Modi government’s ministers attacked the opposition for questioning its decisions. They appealed for national unity in the fight against the coronavirus and saw criticisms against their government as attempts by the opposition to “politicise” a health and humanitarian crisis.
At the Bihar rally, however, Shah was quick to give a positive nod to restore the“tradition of public contact” in the times of the coronavirus pandemic. He said that some people see a political agenda behind organising this virtual rally, and asked them who has stopped them from doing so. The BJP believes in democracy, he added.
Fair enough. But that only the BJP gets to decide when political processes should start or stop is something that won’t be overlooked easily. Shah has sounded the poll bugle in Bihar, and he has done so by conveniently forgetting that the health crisis has only escalated, and is nowhere near being contained successfully.