Covid-19: Is this a political turning point?
Never has independent India faced a crisis of the magnitude that is currently confronting the nation (with the exception of the Partition). Yes, there have been wars, internal insurgencies and conflicts; there is chronic deprivation; and there have been political challenges. But never has India witnessed hundreds of thousands of people get afflicted by a deathly virus every day or the scale of today’s suffering — visible in hospital emergency wards, at homes, even in crematoriums.
There can only be one national priority at the moment — beating back the second wave of the viral pandemic by providing every medical asset and resource necessary, breaking the chain of transmission, moving towards universal vaccination as early as possible, and ensuring relief to every suffering family. Everything else will come later — but it will come, for a defining and transformative moment such as this will inevitably have political consequences.
Riding on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, the central government enjoys an unprecedented degree of popular legitimacy and power. Many have, in the past, made the mistake of underestimating the PM’s political skills, and the government’s ability to bounce back from crises.
Demonetisation was meant to erode the government’s base among the poor, but as reportage in Hindustan Times from eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) in November 2016 showed, the move, in fact, enhanced its popularity. The economic slowdown was meant to shatter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s winning record in 2019 — but a clever mix of nationalism and the politics of welfare neutralised it. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests were seen as shaking the regime’s foundations — but the ruling party converted it into a polarising issue and its electoral implications remain unclear.
The lockdown and migrant crisis was expected to erode the Centre’s credibility — yet, there is little evidence, be it through anecdotal accounts or election results (in Bihar) or surveys (in Bengal) that it dented the PM’s image. The farm agitation was expected to deal a blow to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet, perhaps due to its geographical concentration to limited regions, and the mistakes of the movement itself, the party’s base remains largely intact.
But the second wave of Covid-19 is, arguably, a political turning point.
To be sure, no government could have anticipated the scale of the crisis, with close to 350,000 cases a day. The United States (US), with far more resources, better scientific infrastructure, and a developed health system, too went through multiple waves of the pandemic — and it is only with expedited vaccination that the pandemic has been brought under some degree of control, for now.
But while this context is important, so is the fact that historical trends (remember the second wave of the Spanish Flu was more devastating than the first), contemporary experiences (the subsequent waves of Covid-19 elsewhere) and the nature of the disease itself (the virus is unpredictable) should have made India more alert, less complacent.
This crisis is also different for three political reasons.
For one, the pandemic has come home to the Indian elite, upper middle class, middle class, and the neo-middle class. The BJP may dismiss the “Lutyens elite”, but beyond that central Delhi bubble, across urban India, lie large swathes of Indians who have played an outsized and disproportionate role in determining politics.
Remember, in 2009, urban and middle-class India went with Manmohan Singh, delivering to the Congress a surprising victory. Remember, in 2014, even as the intelligentsia was sceptical of the BJP and Modi, this segment of urban and semi-urban middle class Indians backed a new leader — and provided the momentum for the BJP’s victory. By 2019, the party had indeed expanded — but this segment stayed loyal, visible in results from cities and towns across north, west, and east India.
Today, it is middle class India which has been hit. If the 2019 election, to use analyst Abhinav Prakash’s memorable words, was between Lodhi Road (representing the anti-BJP constituency) and Noida (representing the pro-BJP constituency), today, both Lodhi Road and Noida are affected, as are the middle class locations of Lucknow and Patna, Kanpur and Thane, Surat and Bengaluru.
These citizens are living through the crisis, and their experiences are at variance with official claims. Neither can blame be easily deflected on to other entities — although some of that is already underway with repeated reminders that health is a state subject and that India’s pandemic stats still look good when seen in the context of its population.
Two, the suffering of citizens is today getting channelled as anger — at governments in general, and the Centre in particular. Last year, citizens gave the government the benefit of doubt — this was a new disease, there was sympathy for the State, and a sense that no force could, instantly, beat back the pandemic. Citizens were willing to pay the costs through a lockdown and diminished economic opportunities to save themselves and save the nation, in the hope that the government would be better prepared.
This year, there is limited sympathy. The government’s claims of the progress in health infrastructure in the past year — and indeed there has been progress — is met with scepticism, for what citizens are experiencing is a historical era of scarcity. The State is seen as weak, unable to even provide citizens with the oxygen required to breathe. The rallies in West Bengal and the green signal to the Kumbh — both of which have undoubtedly added to Covid numbers — are seen as examples of entirely skewed priorities. And in neighbourhoods, family WhatsApp groups, and hospitals, there is only one question — could the government not have prepared for this wave better, when it had one year to do so?
The crisis has also exposed weak Indian State capacity, both domestically and internationally. And the sense that India was a rising power, feted by the world, has taken a hit — the country is seen as desperately needing support to tide over the crisis.
And finally, the second wave will intensify the economic crisis. The recovery from the lockdown last year had a clear tilt — where corporate India was getting back on its feet and markets were rising, but the deprived were continuing to suffer and inequality was growing. This time, both ends of the economic spectrum will get hit again, in different degrees.
The hopes of a major boom this year are being moderated, migration of workers from cities to villages has started, factories are shut again, demand is plummeting, supply chains are disrupted, and the health and economic crisis is back. It is not certain if citizens will continue giving the government the benefit of doubt as their incomes dip and expenses rise, amid enhanced health related costs.
This is not to suggest that the BJP will lose elections. In West Bengal, for instance, the party may well win. Neither is to suggest that in three years, the current mood, a product of the current circumstances, won’t change.
But among citizens, deep distrust and doubt have crept in over the central government’s ability to deliver. The romance has frayed. And this may well be the political legacy of the second wave.