Crises are of many kinds and come in different shapes and sizes. The current COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis that is one of a kind, but it is at such times that the true qualities and grit of a nation and its leaders manifest themselves. It demands a mindset very different from carrying out surgical strikes or indulging in bombing expeditions on terror targets inside Pakistan. Today, when India looks to those in authority to provide the necessary kind of leadership, unfortunately, this is nowhere in evidence. If this continues for much longer, it could prove highly detrimental. The leadership must not evade its responsibility and should brace itself for the difficult period ahead. The transition will not be easy.
What is, perhaps, proving rather problematic is that during this time of human travail, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership is confronting another crisis which could have a more direct impact on the party’s future. This crisis centres around whether the BJP needs to make changes and adjustments to what it has been accustomed to do in conducting the affairs of the country since 2014. Triumphalism, which has been the BJP’s stock-in-trade for many years now, having met its Waterloo in the recent Assembly Elections in the States of West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu may need a reset. For a party that seemed to carry everything before it till now, effecting a change may not be easy. What kind of an impact it might have on the affairs of the nation is also a matter of conjecture.
Brand Modi | COVID-19 crisis — BJP leaders worry over party image
Still no complete plan
Coming first to the novel coronavirus pandemic and its impact — COVID-19 has now been with us for nearly 18 months. As yet, the nation has not seen a comprehensive strategy emerging from Delhi to deal with the situation. Numerous statements have been issued at different levels, and several meetings have been held from the Prime Minister downwards, but it is evident that all these are a poor substitute for a well-thought-out strategy.
Most glaring is the flip-flop on the policy concerning vaccination — which is the nearest substitute for a strategy — for the nation is still trying to come to terms on how the authorities will conjure up even the several million doses needed to vaccinate the vulnerable sections of the population in the 18-44 age group. The situation is further muddied by reports of cover-ups regarding ‘missing deaths’ — a damning indictment of all those responsible — considering that ours is a civilisation that treats death and the dying with the same veneration as the living. Distorting statistics can hardly take away the pain of those who have lost their loved ones.
Fault finding has grown
In the meantime, as the facts and statistics surrounding deaths become grimmer, fault finding between the Centre and the States on how to manage the pandemic has only intensified. Anyone familiar with India’s democracy would find it difficult to believe that we function under a federal Constitution (which has no doubt many unitary characteristics). Harmony between the Centre, and specially those States headed by Opposition parties, is conspicuous by its absence.
Finding the right strategy may not be akin to nuclear science, but it could prove difficult for those in authority — mainly those in Delhi — to effect a metamorphosis in their thinking, and adjust to methods needed to implement suggestions, which involve taking the States into confidence and incorporating their suggestions and ideas. This is, perhaps, the biggest stumbling block today, and given the current style of functioning of those in authority, it may be difficult to envisage such a metamorphosis taking place. It is, however, imperative that this is done before it becomes too late.
Election results and fallout
While the pandemic rages, what is perhaps of greater concern to the BJP leadership in Delhi is that the aura of electoral invincibility that had existed since 2014 seems to be dissipating at this time. Predictably (from their point of view), the consequences of this could prove to be dire, and this, possibly, is the main priority for the party’s high priests. It is difficult to believe that the BJP’s leaders would take kindly to the trouncing that the party has received in West Bengal, despite putting everything into its campaign in that State — with the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and the party President spending days campaigning in that State — and allow Mamata Banerjee to enjoy the spoils of victory. The defeats in Kerala, where the party failed to win a single seat, and in Tamil Nadu, where it won a handful of seats, are, perhaps, less galling but would still hurt. Retaining power in Assam and a win in the Union Territory of Puducherry provide little comfort. One can only envisage what has greater priority for the BJP today: dealing with the pandemic or redesigning its strategy to win elections in the future.
The defeat in West Bengal does convey a certain message, but it is uncertain whether the BJP, in its present frame of mind, would heed the message. It is more likely that the party may seek to reinforce the tactics it had employed, which had enabled it to raise its tally of seats from 3 to 77 (now 75), in the belief that more rather than less, would produce desired results. This would be a mistake.
The history of Bengal is replete with instances where attempts to capture power, ignoring the ethos of Bengal, have hardly produced results and at best has led to a pyrrhic victory. Bengal has not forgotten either the tactics adopted by the East India Company — or the role of Mir Jafars — and, hence, suitably adjusting electoral tactics to prevailing winds are more likely to yield results. Consequently, it would be best if the BJP were to introspect on the reasons why it failed so conspicuously in West Bengal, despite having nursed a desire to capture power in that State since 2014. Otherwise, it would indeed be a sad day for democracy and India.
Polarising politics, accentuating the communal divide, employing the idiom of Hindu majoritarianism, etc., are electoral tactics that could, and have succeeded in certain States and in certain situations. It has often been observed that what might well succeed in certain States in the northern parts of the country may not be the recipe for States such as Bengal or many of the southern States. To cite a quotation, “But could saxifrages or soldanellas gemming a pasture in the High Alps thrive if planted in Egypt?” The extent to which Delhi misread the Bengali mind in the recent election is a sad commentary on Delhi’s understanding of Bengal and its politics. Even a fleeting acquaintance with Bengal’s electorate would confirm that Bengal did not fit into any kind of political straitjacket. For decades now, its politics has revolved round underdevelopment and related aspects.
Among other misjudgements made by the BJP on this occasion, which are best avoided in the future if it hopes to do better or capture power in Bengal, is to appreciate that Bengal’s politics contain a mixture of cultural exclusivism, a certain eclecticism, and a belief in their superiority. A far more nuanced approach, rather than muscular tactics are, hence, likely to produce positive results. Among other misjudgements best avoided in the future is that Bengal — in common with Kerala — give women an exalted status. The denigration of women leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, hence, created an adverse reaction and widened a chasm that existed already.
There is unity in diversity
If the ruling dispensation in Delhi fails to heed the lessons that require to be learnt from the handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the outcome of the elections in West Bengal, the country may have to pay a heavy price. Bengal is not India, but it is a microcosm of India in miniature. Dealing with the pandemic at one level and managing the shifting democratic scenario at another level will demand dexterity of a certain kind which is not evident in the ruling dispensation so far. Image managing will certainly not be enough, nor for that matter, exaggerated claims to having achieved success. Neither of them is a substitute for real progress. The handling of the pandemic nationwide and the resort to a blame game has already created a divide and damaged relations between the Centre and the States. The current bias in the exercise of power has to be eschewed for the nation is truly mired in a serious crisis.
Above all, if India is to be retrieved from what many believe is a perilous state of affairs, there are many miles to go in which the Centre and the States must decide to go hand in hand. The ‘unity in diversity’ slogan must be adhered to in its true spirit if India is to survive and succeed.
M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal