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July 14, 2020

INDIA: Along with the disease, the politics

BY Aditi Phadnis

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With Covid-19 infections rising (likely to touch 1mn in the next few days) and little sign that the country is going to flatten the curve anytime soon, the opposition, led by the Congress party, has sharpened its criticism of New Delhi’s handling of the pandemic. However, in internal discussions, the party is advising its top leadership to train its guns on the government and avoid attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally as his popularity remains intact.

The opposition led by the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi has upped its game. After first promising to stand by the government to beat the pandemic, now Gandhi is calling out the government almost every day, highlighting the new highs in infections that are spreading to new areas. Unlike in previous weeks, when the top four hotspot states (Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and Gujarat) contributed more than 60% of the cases, the center of gravity of new cases shifted to other states last week. Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Haryana are the other states which have so far had more than 20,000 cases each since the outbreak and remain among the next set of states with large active caseloads after the four hotspot states. Given the rapidly rising numbers, it is clear that the Modi government has been unable to craft an all-India strategy to counter the disease.

This is the biggest challenge for the government – a lack of clarity on what works best in defeating the pandemic. To shift attention from the numbers, Modi has been emphasizing on individual responsibility and has empowered states to deal with the disease as they know best. His argument that economic activity is gradually returning to normal does have traction among people, especially when combined with sops for low-income groups like free food grain, better prices for agri-commodities, and guaranteed paid work in rural areas.

All these moves are packaged as Modi initiatives. Congress leaders say the better strategy to highlight the destruction caused by the disease is to blame it on the government. Making a distinction between Modi and his government will have greater credibility among people who are trying to cope with shortages of beds, lack of ventilators, and severe supply gaps in India’s medical infrastructure, which cannot be fixed so quickly.

The opposition strategy is still being refined and will be tested in the provincial elections in Bihar, in November/December where a BJP government is in power in a coalition and lacks serious challengers. Despite this, if the Congress party can convince Bihar voters that the BJP must be held accountable for being unable to control the pandemic, the mood could spread to the rest of India, spelling political trouble for the ruling party. However, if Modi’s charisma and appeal saves the day for the BJP, returning it (and its coalition partners) to power in Bihar, then the opposition will have to review its battle plans.

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