Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has practically paralysed the planet. On Tuesday, India went into a 21-day country-wide lockdown, the world’s largest quarantine measure ever.
Yet one activity seems remarkably unaffected: the political wheeling and dealing of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Horse trading in the time of Covid
Take Madhya Pradesh. On Monday, the BJP got its eleventh chief minister as Shivraj Singh Chauhan took oath in the state.
The Congress lost power in the state after winning the elections held in November after of 22 of its MLAs resigned on March 10. They quit after the resignation of senior leader Congress Jyotiraditya Scindia, who joined the BJP almost immediately.
As remarkable as the the BJP managing to ensure government formation in a state election it had lost yet again was the fact that this intense political drama had played out against the backdrop of Covid-19 growing exponentially in India.
The day the 22 MLAs resigned, India had hit its first red mark of 50 cases. The day Chauhan was sworn in, that number had grown 10 times.
Yet, as India stared at its greatest threat in its 70-year existence, the ruling party in New Delhi was expending its energies on a power tussle in one state.
Erasing anti-NRC graffiti
A similar dynamic played out in Delhi, as the Modi-government controlled Delhi Police moved to dismantle the Shaheen Bagh site of a protest against the discriminatory National Register of Citizens. It’s important to note that the protest itself had wound down: only two or three women were sitting there to conduct a symbolic action of resistance, taking care to follow social distancing norms.
A team of workers was then deployed to paint over the art work and graffiti at the Shaheen Bagh site. The same action followed with art work at Jamia University, another key site of protest till a few days back.
Not only did this activity of erasing artwork, ironically, ignore social distancing norms, it had nothing to do with Covid-19 at all. To make the motivations of the act completely clear, the man in charge of the BJP’s social media cell, Amit Malviya, released a statement cheering the erasure of art from the Shaheen Bagh protest site by using the term “Muslim veto”.
What had any of this to do with Covid-19?
Mandir not in lockdown
While the NRC might be the BJP’s main political plank now, the party did not forget its previous frontrunner.
Hours after Modi announced a country-wide lockdown and strict social distancing norms, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh threw both to the winds and tweeted photos of him taking part in a religious ceremony to inaugurate the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
NDTV reported that while there was talks of the ceremony being called off, in the end Adityanath decided to go ahead with it.
The chief minister then put out photos with many prominent saints from the town in attendance as well as senior government officials, including Ayodhya’s district magistrate and the police chief. Not only did this ignore the lockdown in general and break social distancing norms, it also specifically violated a guideline issued by the Modi government which bans all religious congregations “without any exception”.
The construction of the Ram Temple would be a significant electoral consideration for the BJP – a consideration even now not diminished in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic lockdown.
The health emergency was no reason for the BJP to shelve even its relatively minor concerns. On Friday, the Modi government duly issued a notification to begin work on the its ambitious plan to redevelop the central district of New Delhi which houses most of the Union’s government’s ministries as well as the residences of ministers of parliamentarians.
Concentrate on the crisis
This focus on pulling down state governments or defacing wall graffiti comes even as large questions marks have been raised about India’s seeming lack of preparedness as it was rushed into lockdown.
Worrying reports have emerged of migrants workers stranded in several places as inter-state transport was snapped. A week after Modi announced that there would be an task force to tackle to gargantuan economic challenges thrown up by Covid-19, not only has the group not yet been constituted, reports say the finance minister herself had no idea she would be heading the force till the prime minister announced it to the country.
Perhaps most worryingly, there has been so little preparation done for the lockdown that as soon as Modi announced the 21-day lockdown on Tuesday, lakhs of panicked Indians flooded the markets hoping to stock enough food. This crowding of markets ironically defeated the very purpose of the 21-day quarantine and was so intense that Modi had to soon issue an appeal on Twitter (a forum relatively few Indians access), writing in all caps: “THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO NEED TO PANIC”.
Covid-19 is an unprecedented crisis for any country. As wrenching as lockdowns have been for China and Italy, it must be remembered that both countries are significantly wealthier than India. India’s challenges are, therefore, much greater.
At this time, it is essential for India’s ruling party to put aside its petty political games and concentrate completely on this crisis. Madhya Pradesh, Ram Temple, erasing graffiti and redeveloping Lutyen’s Delhi can wait.
But an economic task force, food stocks and stranded workers can’t.