BJP makes it clear rules of politics are different for it and Opposition

While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) derides every statement of the Opposition about the coronavirus crisis, as “playing politics”, for the party it is politics as usual. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, whose absence from the frontlines during the pandemic’s early days caused much speculation, has come back with a spree of virtual political rallies. He has already addressed three rallies—aimed at West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa—and there are 72 such big rallies to be held by him and other ministers.

Bihar will go to the polls in November this year and West Bengal early next year. In West Bengal, the BJP installed 70,000 large flat-screen at the “booth level” (there are 78,000 polling booths in the state) and 15,000 giant LED screens across the state to address voters. Shah told viewers that his party wants to win the coming election and only they were capable of transforming the state into “Sonar Bangla” (Golden Bengal). In Bihar—where 50,000 flat-screen TVs and 10,000 big LED screens were put up to cover 72,000 polling booths—he predicted that his party would win by a two-thirds majority in the coming legislative elections. Shah’s rally in Bihar alone is alleged by some Opposition leaders to have cost over Rs. 140 crore. Despite barbs on social media that the BJP was supplying “LED TVs instead of ventilators”, Shah celebrated his government’s achievements in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet amid predictions of electoral victory Amit Shah has also reluctantly accepted “We may have made mistakes, we may have fallen short, and we may not have been able to do something(s),” while referring to his government’s handling of the pandemic and the migrant crisis that followed after a national lockdown. Such public acknowledgement of policy failure is a first by the Modi government. The demonetisation disaster by contrast has quietly disappeared from the party’s propaganda literature on its governments’ achievements as well as from the Prime Minister’s Letter to the Nation.

“But”, deflecting public anger on the migrant crisis Amit Shah asks the Opposition, “What did you do”? The Congress is blamed for labour out-migration from Eastern India because they did not create enough employment over the last several decades. In West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is falsely said to have referred to the Shramik Express trains as “Corona Express” to paint her as hostile to returning migrants. In Orissa too previous (non-BJP) regimes are blamed for job related migration. However, Shah sings a quite different tune in Bihar. There he has to contest an election in alliance with the incumbent party in five months’ time. So returning migrants in Bihar are praised by him as building the foundations of the nation.

It is quite meaningless to question the Opposition’s “contribution” to the pandemic efforts as they neither have the resources nor the constitutional mandate that the government enjoys. Opposition parties neither collect taxes nor have access to the Exchequer or the executive machinery of the bureaucracy.

Like any NGO the opposition parties must dig into their own resources to proffer help. Where they did attempt to use their own comparatively meagre resources they were thwarted by the ruling party. In Uttar Pradesh, Congress Party functionaries who tried to ferry migrant  workers home in hired buses had charges pressed against them by the state’s BJP government and they are languishing in jails. The central government’s forfeiture of MPLADS (Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) funds for the next two years means that even elected legislators can do little to redirect resources to their constituencies.

Having disarmed an already weak Opposition, to then shift blame on its head for the ungovernable fallout of the pandemic is childish, yet a routine practice for BJP leaders. Within minutes of criticism by the Opposition, ministers of the Modi government begin throwing their toys out of the pram on national television, accusing it of weakening the nation’s resolve during a countrywide crisis.

Every statement by Rahul Gandhi who has been pro-active in forewarning the government about the enormity of the pandemic has been harshly criticised. He was accused by the BJP of spreading panic on February 12, when he asked the government to put necessary systems in place for combatting the imminent danger posed by the pandemic. No less than the Union Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan, went on record to claim that everything was under control. When Rahul Gandhi questioned the government’s preparedness to deal with the looming possibility of economic devastation as early as March 17, he was shouted down. Later when he questioned the benefits of the sudden nationwide lockdown, he was accused by senior ministers of “playing politics”, being “irresponsible” and “weakening” the national resolve to fight the pandemic. His meeting with migrants trudging back to their villages, was testily dubbed as the superficial theatrics of a “drame baaz”, by the Union Finance Minister.

None of the BJP ministers including Amit Shah spelled out what they sought from the Opposition except desisting from criticism. The Opposition in their view, must remain a mute spectator to chaotic lockdowns, inflated packaging of the government’s economic stimulus, abjuring of much-needed cash transfers to farmers and migrant workers and keep quiet even on the Chinese occupation of Indian territory in Ladakh. Any critical response will be considered “politicking in a crisis situation”.

However, the ruling party is free to pursue politics at any time of its choosing. The Union Home Ministry waited to announce a nationwide lockdown till the BJP had successfully ousted the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh. Even now, in the midst of the pandemic, the BJP has been engaged in luring four Congress legislators for winning an additional Rajya Sabha seat in Gujarat, one of the worst Covid-affected states. In Rajasthan too its attempts to destabilise the Congress government have barely been thwarted. Clearly there are different political rules for the BJP and the Opposition. Twitter: @Bharatitis

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