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Has Modi run out of gas?

May 02, 2021 17:14 IST
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Other strong men have stopped Modi and his hordes in states before, but none of them with a footprint or battle cry to shake up New Delhi, observes Saisuresh Sivaswamy.

IMAGE: Narendra Damodardas Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party's lead campaigner for Elections 2021, at an election rally in West Bengal. Photograph: PTI Photo

The five-state election results have sent a grim reminder to the Bharatiya Janata Party that there are large swathes in the country that remain immune to its vote-catcher-in-chief Narendra Modi's charms, rather like Gaul in Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's seminal creation, that are ruled by local supermen (and a woman).

The jewel in the crown, West Bengal, continues to remain in the thrall of Mamata Banerjee, warts and all, and the BJP will have to find someone better than Suvendu Adhikari to dethrone her five years hence.

At the time of writing Assam stays with the BJP as expected, but Tamil Nadu has kissed the ruling AIADMK goodbye, possibly stung by the BJP's tie-up, although Puducherry hasn't let such associations come in the way of electing N Rangasamy. Kerala has shown that it is aligned with neighbouring Tamil Nadu in keeping out the BJP.

But elections, really, are the side story here. Could the outcome have been different had coronavirus not wreaked havoc in large parts of the country, and exposing the Modi government's utter disregard for human life and its sheer incompetence in dealing with the biggest health tragedy seen in the country?

Yes, the Modi government is solely responsible for the crisis we are seeing across the nation, because it is this government that sent out the wrong message to the country and the world earlier this year. Sorry, there is no Jawaharlal Nehru to blame for this crisis (but he must be praised for setting up the All India Institute of Medical Sciences which is a life-saver).

That's because words have a life of their own. Spoken at the right time, in the right context and in right measure, they can make you a savant, a statesman.

Mistimed words, however, are another matter altogether.

So here's what Modi told the World Economic Forum at Davos in January:

'In the initial period of Corona, we were importing masks, PPE kits and test kits. Today, we are not only taking care of our domestic needs, but also serving the citizens of other countries by exporting these items. And today it is India which has also launched the world's largest corona vaccination programme.'

'We worked on strengthening the Covid specific health infrastructure, trained our human resources to tackle the pandemic and used technology massively for testing and tracking of the cases.'

'It would not be advisable to judge India's success with that of another country. In a country which is home to 18 percent of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.'

On February 18, the Uttarakhand government got in on the act, announcing the Haridwar Kumbh Mela, the sole concession to coronavirus being the curtailment of the gathering to 30 days and a slew of Covid-prevention measures.

And as if on cue the Bharatiya Janata Party passed a resolution on February 21, 2021, hailing Modi's leadership for defeating coronavirus.

'A year later, as the BJP holds its national office-bearer meeting, it can be said with pride that India not only defeated Covid under the able, sensitive, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, but also infused in all its citizens the confidence to build an 'Atmanirbhar Bharat'.'

...'despite the sudden need for healthcare equipment, PPE kits, testing kits, masks, oxygen cylinder, ventilator etc, a shortage of the same was never felt. The current generation wouldn't have seen a better example of India's prowess in overcoming these challenges.'

'The country is steadily advancing in the direction of complete triumph over Covid. This became possible because under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the relentless efforts of the scientists working in the medical field succeeded in ensuring the availability of two India-manufactured vaccines.'

IMAGE: Trinamool Congress President Mamata Banerjee speaks to party workers, Kolkata, April 30, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

Self-congratulation? Self-delusion? Or plain ignorance?

With the prime minister and the ruling party declaring that coronavirus has been well and truly interred, five days later the Election Commission announces elections to five states, with West Bengal, eyed longingly by Modi and the BJP, getting a special gift of 8-phase polls.

Which begs the question. If the prime minister had declared victory over the virus in January, why was the Uttarakhand government of the BJP subsequently so concerned about coronavirus that it had to curtail the Kumbh Mela to one month (which it was forced to call off even sooner)?

And why did the BJP national meeting three days after the Kumbh decision still praise Modi and the central government for winning the war on coronavirus?

Isn't it but natural if the Uttarakhand BJP knew of the potential risk, the BJP's top leadership, including Modi, would have been aware of it too?

So what explains the government's self-congratulation, its decision to go ahead with super-spreader events like the Kumbh Mela (attended by lakhs with little regard for Covid norms), or its decision to mount a blitzkrieg in Bengal as if these were normal times?

When you conflate the ruling establishment's self-praise with reports that scientists had alerted the government in early March to the Covid second wave but were not heeded to, the picture that emerges is of a callous Pied Piper who unnecessarily led the people to their doom.

Only here, the target was the Bengal elections.

Winning which was Modi's burning ambition in his second term as prime minister. Tamil Nadu and Kerala too await, but those are for his third term, the crowning glory in the second term will be having the BJP enter Nabanna for the first time.

It was meant to outshine even Caesar's Roman triumphs of yore, and a pesky, infinitesimal infiltrator from China cannot be allowed to come in the way.

So the prime minister decides to go ahead with elections as usual, doesn't disallow the Kumbh Mela lest the Hindu consolidation he works so hard for in elections doesn't take place, firm in the knowledge that the Election Commission will play along.

For everyone moaning the absence of a T N Seshan, it's worth remembering that the same Seshan, post-retirement, had to genuflect before the same politicians he had terrorised when he decided to contest the presidential elections.

Post-retirement is a hard place to be in, and no bureaucrat wants to be denied plum assignments, and this is the reason we have seen only one T N Seshan. Others have learnt their lesson.

Which is the reason why the Election Commission looked the other way and allowed the conduct of a month-long phase even as coronavirus was raging with nary a worry.

But the ultimate blame, for turning a blind eye to the crisis, worsening it by allowing super-spreader events and actively participating in them, even thanking the crowds that thronged his election rallies, rests with the Narendra Modi alone.

As it has done on so many occasions in the past but each time, he had managed to stave off political damage and emerge as the Teflon prime minister.

But this time, it looks like hubris has caught up with him.

Contrary to what he and his party proclaimed months ago, neither had the war on coronavirus been won decisively nor was the nation ready for its second coming. We were simply not prepared.

No hospital beds, no medical oxygen, no vaccines. Heck, not even enough crematoriums or cemeteries.

If you look at Modi's words and actions since the pandemic last year, it's evident that he has no solution to offer. Possibly he never ever had any solutions, but it's taken this immense human tragedy to expose his claims of governance and administration.

At the height of the pandemic last year, instead of pushing science and medicine as counters to the virus, he urged his citizens to bang plates, clap, blow the conch. And the fact that a majority of us complied with this exposes us more than it does him. His health minister even pushed a self-style vaccine by a saffron groupie, of which nothing has been heard subsequently.

That the Covid second wave has ravaged Gujarat exposes the false claims of 2014 when the Gujarat model of development was touted as the panacea India needed.

IMAGE: A Bharatiya Janata Party supporter seeks blessings from Modi at an election rally in Hooghly district, April 3, 2021. Photograph: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI Photo

Be it the disaster called demonetisation or the ill-planned GST implementation, Modi was never a details man. He announces grand decisions and expects the people to handle the consequences. Like with the note ban, never mind the human consequences. Indians are great sufferers, he knows, and suffering can always be sublimated for a higher cause of nation-building.

Like his grand 'Tikka Ytsav' announced just when the nation was running out of Covid vaccines!

When the BJP brass lay inert, intoxicated by a non-existent victory over a virus and of dreams of a future win in Kolkata, the virus made a Trojan horse-like entry into the country.

If the chowkidar snoozing on the job and leaving the gate ajar was a criminal act, what was even more despicable was the low standards to which the election campaign was brought down to, all to dethrone one chief minister.

Never mind she was a woman, and the prime minister prided himself on concepts like Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao and spoke of Nari Shakti, Devi, etc.

His heckling of Mamata Banerjee as 'Didi... O didi...' must rank as the nadir of Indian electioneering. How can a prime minister of a nation stoop to such a low? And to heckle a woman thus in a cultured state like West Bengal? Truly, where the nation deserves a statesman with vision and foresight, it's got politician capable of seeing only the tip of his nose.

And that's the point. For Modi and his cohorts only one thing matters -- winning elections at any and all cost.

Towards this end they are willing to throw all norms -- decency, humanity, politics to the wind.

But as the electioneering continued under the Dhritarashtra-like Election Commission, the death count from coronavirus was also mounting alongside.

And this spared no one -- not politicians, not the rich, not the well-connected -- and for the first time Middle India that has stood solidly by Modi through all his misadventures and misrule has started to have misgivings. The consequences were now too close home.

And nowhere was this evident than in various WhatsApp groups, hitherto the battleground for saffron IT warriors to outshout any other narrative but where now they have been unable to offer any credible defence of their hero except whataboutery.

And this is where Mamata Banerjee's rout of the BJP is important.

The pandemic may have had a minimal reason behind her tremendous electoral win, and all to do with her direct appeal to the electorate as well as disgust at the way she was singled out, hectored, and pilloried by the entire rank and file of BJP leaders brought in from outside.

But the timing of her win is what makes it crucial.

Hitherto Indians had resigned themselves to Modi's misrule in the absence of someone who can fight him. TINA was his strength.

Yes, other strong men have stopped Modi and his hordes in states before, but none of them with a footprint or battle cry to shake up New Delhi.

But over the last few weeks, a tired, distressed, defeated population has been watching how Mamata has fought off Modi and his army single-handedly, dealing them a blow like they've never have been dealt before.

Bengal has shown what it thinks today; will India follow suit tomorrow?

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