The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power at the Centre and a number of states, has struggled to handle the Covid-19 crisis. It has sparked off an exodus of migrants from cities, messed up the procurement of tests and put together an economic package that has failed to convince anyone.
Yet this hasn’t stopped the party from continuing to play political games, even at the cost of hurting India’s ability to battle the coronavirus.
Earlier in the year, the BJP used the Covid-19 crisis to continue demonising Muslims, a tactic that has significantly contributed to the stigma around the disease. It used the cover of the lockdown to whitewash the protest art at demonstration sites in Delhi that had been vacated because of the restrictions. It thencarried out arrests of several people who had spoken out against the government’s citizenship initiatives. As the medical crisis began to swell, the BJP toppled the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, hobbling the state’s ability to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic in the early weeks of its spread.
Now, the BJP has turned its eyes on Maharashtra, which is ruled by a coalition consisting of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress.
The state currently has the highest number of cases in India, accounting for almost a third of known infections. In part because of the sheer population density in Mumbai, Maharashtra’s capital and the state are struggling to contain the outbreak, even as the rest of the country attempts to re-open after a long, harsh national lockdown.
Amid all this, the BJP has seen an opportunity to pull down the government.
Its online bot-armies have spent the last month attacking Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, first by spreading communal rumours and then criticising him for the situation in the state, despite the questions being raised about the Centre’s strategy.
Over the last week, BJP leaders have been visiting Raj Bhavan to speak to the governor, sparking more rumours that the party wants to topple the government. Then BJP Member of Parliament Narayan Rane came out and said it: “Maharashtra should be put under President’s rule. The Governor should step in.”
Worried that this would be construed as dirty politicking in the middle of a crisis, former chief minister and BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis insisted that his party was not trying to topple the government – but added that it would “collapse” on its own. Reports have suggested that the BJP’s “national leadership wants the state unit to keep the pressure on, but does not want it to take the blame of toppling it, which could create sympathy for Thackeray”.
Criticism from the Opposition, even in a time of crisis, is a good thing. It helps ensure accountability and if the government is listening, creates the conditions for course correction. But this is not something that the BJP understands, even though its governments have struggled to deal with the virus at the national level as well as in states like Gujarat. When criticism is leveled at Modi for his mishandling of many aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, party supporters say that this is unnecessary –and even anti-national. Yet the same kind of criticism directed at Maharashtra is seen to be an act necessary to save the state from collapse.
The BJP, as it has been shaped by former party president Amit Shah, understands much more about political power games than real governance. With thousands of Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra and hospitals running out of beds, the BJP has decided that this is the time to take advantage of the crisis, unsettle the state government and overthrow the parties that outsmarted it last October.
It would be a reminder of the nakedly opportunistic way in which the party approaches its politics.