The year 2020 was a watershed in many respects, but politics and politicians remained much the same. At a time when a constructive discourse was needed on public health infrastructure, investment in bio-sciences, leveraging of digital technologies, geo-strategic imperatives and the importance of 'atmanirbharta', politicians were unable to rise above petty rivalries.
Reasoned debate was a major casualty of the year, which ended as it had begun, on a strident note of protest. From Shaheen Bagh to Singhu Border, protesters dug in their heels against legislations deemed hurtful to their interests. The issues were internationalised and endlessly discussed, but the level of debate left much to be desired.
The same applied to the migrant worker crisis, which followed the abrupt imposition of lockdown in March. Images of migrant workers trekking homeward triggered a storm of emotional media coverage, but the core issue – that no state government, including Delhi, had bothered to implement the Inter-State Migrant Workmen's Act of 1979 – was largely ignored.
Gender crimes were politicised at both ends of the spectrum. The Hathras rape case, one of many brutal assaults reported through the year, was presented as an instance of casteist violence and taken up by the Opposition. On the other hand, the murder of a young college student in broad daylight by a stalker from the minority community was used as a justification for the so-called 'love jihad' law by BJP-led governments - as if the struggle for gender parity wasn't hard enough already.
Chinese aggression on the Ladakh border, resulting in the death of 20 Indian soldiers, failed to unite the political class. The clash on the ground led to a war of words between the Congress and the BJP, with the former accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of lying on the issue and “accepting” Chinese occupation in Ladakh. The BJP hit back by citing areas lost to China during the UPA regime.
Plumbing the depths of the absurd, the Maharashtra government and the Centre waged a proxy war.
The Narcotics Control Board (NCB), for reasons best known to itself, went after casual cannabis-users as though they were drug lords. The Shiv-Sena government retaliated by targeting a news channel and media and entertainment personalities perceived as being NDA-aligned. Bitter Twitter wars ensued. All this, as the state quailed under a raging pandemic.
The Congress, which lost stalwart leader Ahmed Patel to Covid-19, spent most of the year absorbed in internal bickering, even as its political fortunes plummeted. Out for a duck in the Delhi assembly elections, its poor performance in Bihar ensured the return of the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government, thereby testing the patience of its most loyal ally, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
Elections to the local bodies produced equally dismal results. The BJP's clean sweep in the Rajasthan panchayat elections, in particular, was disturbing for incumbent Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. Equally humiliating was the loss of seats in the Madhya Pradesh byelections, where the Congress clinched just nine of 28, most of which it had earlier held.
Even before the Bihar result, the pervading torpor in the party prompted a clutch of Congress leaders to warn the party leadership that it had to change or perish. But no substantive changes had been made by the year-end, despite several rounds of discussion with party president Sonia Gandhi.
The Farm Acts 2020 came as a welcome diversion from its internal troubles in the last quarter of the year, enabling Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh to instigate a protest against agricultural reforms. That the Congress did a volte face on a set of reforms it had promised to promote in its 2019 manifesto, did not deter the party from accusing the centre of wanting to 'kill' the agricultural sector.
The judiciary came off much the worse for wear this year, with the (now retired) Supreme Court Justice Arun Mishra's controversial remarks on Prime Minister Modi, followed by suo motu criminal contempt proceedings against senior counsel Prashant Bhushan. The Delhi police drew their share of criticism for their handling of the riots in the capital city and the subsequent investigation, which saw a raid on Advocate Mehmood Pracha, to the ire of the Supreme Court Bar Association.
Prime Minister Modi seemed to distance himself from petty politics, by appearing in a 'rajrishi' avatar. He was a reassuring presence throughout the pandemic, giving updates on the fight against the pandemic and offering advice on staying safe. The star of the show at the foundation ceremony of the Ram Mandir, he delivered a seminal speech on a 'self-reliant, self-aware' India.
The new year finds the country dangling between fear and hope, confronting multiple challenges, from the rollout of a vaccine, putting the economy back on track, China-proofing the borders (and the economy) and making India 'atmanirbhar' and an investment destination. Politicians, meanwhile, are doing what they do best: gearing up for another round of assembly elections.
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.