Politics in the time of the spread of COVID-19 can be as elusive as human relationships during a pandemic. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in India, several ruling and opposition leaders realised the transient nature of political engagements when a crisis of such a magnitude confronts us.
Whether it is the Centre, state governments, communities, or individuals, everyone believes that petty squabbling is not in order now. With the disease afflicting almost 500 persons across India and the number of deaths inching closer to ten, the threat from COVID-19 is truly daunting.
Currently, the battle is to curb the virulent spread of the human virus through airport screening, expanded testing, travel curbs and lockdowns. Spontaneous response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to observe a “janata” curfew and subsequent willingness by large sections of the people to subject themselves to lockdown is a proof enough — that everyone is bracing up for the worst-case scenario.
But they are also filled with the belief that we shall overcome it — if we do what must be done at once. Even non-BJP chief ministers like Uddhav Thackeray, Naveen Patnaik, Amarinder Singh, Ashok Gehlot, K Chandrasekhar Rao, Y S Jaganmohan Reddy and, belatedly even Mamata Banerjee have dropped their political agenda and rallied to strengthen the Prime Minister’s hands.
They are undertaking stern measures in their respective states without questioning Modi’s leadership or actions. But what is baffling is the response of the top Congress leadership represented by Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul and daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
Former finance minister P Chidambaram too is in two minds — whether to back the Modi government’s efforts or unleash his barrage of attack, though the coronavirus outbreak has forced investigative agencies —the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) — to scale down their probes (against him and others) and suspend non-urgent interrogations till April 4.
It appears that the conclusion of the Congress first family, which is not echoed by many members of their party, is that the opportunity to corner the PM (that has been thrown up by the outbreak of COVID19) should not be allowed to pass.
So we have heard Rahul Gandhi almost going ballistic with his charge that the PM is absolutely “clueless” about the crisis and has not taken seriously his “warnings” about the impending disaster to the economy from the disease.
Unable to hide her dismay at the fall of their favourite — Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has taken to Twitter to taunt the PM, saying that if he has got free time after toppling an elected government, he should speak on coronavirus.
Sonia Gandhi thinks that she must write to the PM on some basic ideas to tackle the crisis. Much to their disappointment, Modi has spoken to the nation twice through his nationwide television address and through tweets, drawing an overwhelming response.
Drawing on his own political capital among the masses, Modi has sought to reach out to every citizen to understand the complexities of the COVID-19 challenge, almost pleading with everyone to observe isolation protocol and help in breaking the transmission cycle of the coronavirus.
Going by their response, most Indians appear to be wanting to trust Modi’s words and his government’s abilities and efforts to do the needful — detect the persons who have contracted the virus from abroad, trace their family contacts, and contain the spread of the disease by series of measures. Of course, the bigger challenge is coping up with the economic problems that COVID-19 is certain to leave behind — if and when it leaves our shores.
No one has yet to understand its implications. Modi is faulted by the Congress for not coming up with immediate announcements to fix the economy, apart from asking Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to head a task force to assess the damage sector-wise.
Of course, Sitharaman has come out with the first set of relief steps on March 24. More alleviation measures are to follow once requirements of different sections of the society are properly estimated. Does it mean that the opposition should not speak a word against Modi now? Of course, not.
It is the main job of the opposition to keep the government on its toes and seek answers. It must see to it that it is doing the right thing.
What are we doing to test patients? Do we have enough testing kits? What is being done to mobilise health care staff, beds, and ventilators? All opposition leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and Priyanka, must ask the people to stay calm, cooperate with lockdown measures and quarantine.
But, at the moment, these leaders are more keen to show that the Modi Government is “inept and incapable of doing anything good”. Some tweets of Rahul seemed to be worded to whip an anti-government sentiment rather than raise valid concerns. There is a tendency to place too much reliance on so-called “epidemic experts” whose alarmist projections is lapped up by Modi’s critics.
No one denies the fact that the government would need to detect and quarantine half of all patients infected by the novel coronavirus within three days of them developing symptoms if it wants to cut down the number of such sick people by 62 per cent.
In fact, a study by the ICMR has indicated so, though it has not attempted to forecast the size of the epidemic in India. However, Modi’s critics have seized upon forecasts by two US-based groups which have given a very gloomy picture.
A study by scientists at the University of Michigan has said India could keep its infections at 13,500-odd cases by mid-May only with stricter vigil and harsh lockdowns for extended periods.
Another study by the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, a think tank in the US, has not minced words in hinting at two to four million persons needing hospitalisation over the next three months.
But, we must remember that panic is not the answer for right actions to be taken to tackle what is right now unknown dimensions of the challenge. In any case, the choice is limited.
Authorities will have to enforce complete lockdown to prevent the cycle of transmission of the disease, which also could mean a full knockout of our economic activity.
The writer is a former Senior Associate Editor of Hindustan Times and Political Editor of Deccan Herald, New Delhi.