Coronavirus Pandemic: Political response feeble; failed to account for social, economic ramifications

A politically-led response may have proved more effective than a bureaucratic approach, which perceived the pandemic purely as a health crisis and overlooked its social and economic dimensions.

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Thursday, June 11, 2020, 08:33 AM IST
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Food being handed out to migrants travelling via Shramik Special trains | ANI

The Congress has been castigated for appearing clueless in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the sad fact is that the political response across the spectrum has been inadequate. Public engagement by elected representatives has been minimal, owing to a lack of direction from their respective central leaderships.

A politically-led response may have proved more effective than a bureaucratic approach, which perceived the pandemic purely as a health crisis and overlooked its social and economic dimensions.

While elected representatives were 'MIA', grassroots workers of all shades were out in the field, arranging relief in their bailiwicks. In Delhi, RSS swayamsevaks fed thousands of migrant workers at their own expense or through funds raised from their respective communities. The same is true of Congress leaders (former MPs, councillors and the like) who joined hands with community leaders and resident welfare associations to arrange personal protective gear and food packets. Some of them reached out to the public on Whatsapp.

These were individual initiatives, neither organised nor monitored by parties. For example, a Congress office-bearer in Uttar Pradesh said he had been arranging food aid and personal protective gear in his town since the beginning of April, but no senior party leader has spoken with him to elicit feedback about the situation on the ground or to offer assistance, although he is the most prominent Congressman in his district.

Likewise, an MLA in Haryana said he had arranged rest-stops and accommodation for migrant workers from neighbouring Delhi when they started streaming through his constituency, but had not been contacted by anyone in the party.

Political workers swung into action belatedly, because no one from their respective parties appears to have foreseen the impact of the lockdown on migrant and daily wage workers, any more than the state or central government did. If they did, they did not bother to give the troops on the ground a heads-up. It was only after the media highlighted the exodus from the capital that they went out into the field. Had they been asked to arrange transport and food for migrant workers, they could have done so easily, said a BJP worker. “Don't we organise trucks, snacks and even money for political rallies at the drop of a hat?”

In rural areas, local self-government institutions have proved more effective than their urban counterparts. The zilla and village panchayats have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, arranging quarantine for returning migrant workers, delivery of food and cash entitlements to BPL households and additional relief for those in need. For instance, in a cluster of villages close to Dehradun, well-off city residents were asked to sponsor a monthly care package costing Rs 1,350 for those who hadn't received aid through official channels. The village pradhans identified vulnerable families and ensured distribution with the support of the community. But the area MP and MLA have not been seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

The BJP claimed it had 10 million workers in field and was monitoring 'feed the hungry' efforts on a daily basis. This may well be true, but these efforts would have been more effective if elected representatives had been touring their constituencies to reassure the public and ensure that migrant and daily wage workers were looked after. Instead, they seemed to be in lockdown mode.

The Congress spokespersons who have alleged that the party is hurtling towards obsolescence (to the horror and anger of their colleagues) have a point. A disruptive crisis offers the political Opposition an opportunity for revitalisation. But there was virtually no public outreach and the opportunity has been lost. Spokespersons treated the pandemic as an occasion for business-as-usual bashing of the government, instead of showcasing the Congress' governance credentials. Former party chief Rahul Gandhi put in a blink-and-miss appearance on the street; it was far too little, too late.

There are positive signs, however. The first is the fact that the Congress still has a grassroots base, which is active even though it is invisible to the power-that-be at the top. The second is that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, or 'PGV' as she is known, emerged during the crisis as the only pro-active leader. She made personal calls to Congressmen, inquiring about their well-being. Her team may be held in dislike and distrust by the rest of the party, but she continues to inspire.

The lesson for the BJP is that it needs to stop thinking of itself as an electoral machine and go back to basic politics. For the Congress, the pandemic underlines the need to engage with its own base and set up a think tank that is quick on its feet, one that would have red flagged the adverse impact of lockdown, rather than whining about it in hindsight.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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