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June 11, 2020

INDIA: Modi escapes the blame – for now

BY Aditi Phadnis

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The recent resignation of two elected opposition (Congress I) lawmakers from their positions in the Gujarat provincial legislative assembly and their subsequent defection to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would not normally have caused political waves. But in a climate dominated by India’s ineffectual struggle to beat back the Covid-19 pandemic, the defection indicates that voters have not yet lost faith in the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and conscious of this, political leaders continue to consider Modi the winning horse to back. The resignations will reduce the overall strength of the Gujarat legislative assembly and will enable the BJP to push an additional member to the upper house – the Rajya Sabha – elections due to take place on 19 June. In return for their move, the defectors have been told that the BJP will re-nominate them for their seats and support their run. Given that Gujarat is one of the states worse affected by Covid-19, this assurance is significant.

It was Interior Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man, who conceded at a meeting of party workers earlier this week that the government could have handled the crisis much better, especially regarding the plight of migrant workers. However, he was quick to add that the NDA’s commitment could not be questioned. Around 80 migrants have died while trying to return home. In response, India’s Supreme Court has ordered the federal government to arrange migrant workers’ safe return within 15 days. This is easier said than done because many states have said they do not want migrants returning to their rural homes and bringing the infection back with them.

A central element in the Modi government’s strategy to protect itself from the negative political fall-out of the pandemic is to give state governments a free hand in deciding mitigation strategies. While India has states like Maharashtra where the pandemic is virulent, there are also smaller states like Sikkim which have zero Covid-19 positive cases. The coping mechanisms and priorities are different in each state. But most states, including the capital Delhi, are struggling to cope given insufficient health capacity while the federal government has kept itself at a distance; many feel that in doing so, it has set the states up for failure.

This means that those at the receiving end – including migrant workers, Covid-19 patients and their families – are making their judgments about the efficacy or otherwise of the government response to the pandemic based on their experience in dealings with the state government. All but the worst critics of the BJP feel the federal government is not to blame for the lapses in the system. Nonetheless, as the infection travels to rural India via the migrants, where levels of testing are low, there is little visibility into further waves of outbreaks.

The BJP is trying to propel the political narrative into a referendum on managing the pandemic. The Bihar provincial assembly elections are due later this year, followed by the BJP’s biggest challenge: elections to the legislative assembly of West Bengal, due in the first quarter of 2021. While the BJP is a partner in power in Bihar and will need to defend its citadel, if the party can dislodge the ruling Trinamool Congress (which is bitter BJP critic) from power in West Bengal, it will have achieved a stupendous political feat, for this is one state where power has eluded the BJP.

With most Indians defending the lockdown as the only way to prevent a catastrophe – although at the cost of jobs, livelihood and food – the Modi government seems to be safe for now. But some deft political re-adjustments will be needed once the lockdown is lifted fully, people return to work and there is an economy in shambles with which to contend.

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