US-based political rating firm Morning Consult rated Prime Minister Narendra Modi the most popular world leader last week for his efficient handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. While this should be a moment of pride for all of us, we need to refresh our memory about what he has done to attract such encomiums across the world.
Imagine a family that is saving money on a day-to-day basis to buy lifestyle items but is suddenly faced with a situation where a member falls seriously ill. The family head decides to spend the entire money on getting the ailing member back to health and postpones all major economic decisions. No one in the family grudges that and everybody gets ready to build their dreams again.
This is exactly what happened when Covid-19 struck India in February-March 2020. The country was doing reasonably well and aspiring to become a major economy, despite the economic slowdown the world over. The decision to put the country under lockdown meant that economic activities would virtually shut down. But the decision had to be taken and the country’s leader, like the family elder, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, decided to save lives first.
Nobody knew how to deal with the situation. Nobody knew how the new virus would spread and how it would be contained. World health bodies and experts had differing views on how to deal with the situation. The only reasonable way was to track down the carrier and isolate the patient till he recovered. But this was a near impossible task due to the density of population and the number of people who had already come into India from various affected countries, including China.
Luckily, in India, we had Narendra Modi, who is an expert in disaster management, at the helm. He had organised the biggest relief work in Gujarat while trying to rebuild Bhuj after a devastating earthquake. He did it first as BJP’s organisational man in 2001, then as Chief Minister from 2002, till he became the Prime Minister in 2014.
His experience and instinct, besides feedback from experts, indicated that something serious was going to threaten human existence. Let us not forget that Covid-19 was declared a pandemic much later. One can imagine how civilisations must have collapsed and become extinct in the past. India was clearly not prepared. There was a shortage of PPE Kits, masks, sanitisers, drugs and every other thing that was needed to deal with the situation, including doctors and paramedical staff.
It was in this context that on 24 March 2020, Prime Minister Modi came on national television and announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days. Prior to the lockdown, US health expert Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan had warned that, in the worst-case scenario, about 60% of India’s population, or 80 crore people, would be infected with Covid-19. But in view of the lockdown, Dr Ramanan scaled down the figure to about 20% (almost 30 crore). There is now a history of how the lockdown was extended and how it was violated and the controversy associated with the events. But, overall, the country behaved very sensibly. The economy shrunk, people lost jobs and life got completely disturbed—but lives were saved.
A comparison would give a clearer picture. As of 2 January 2021, about 8.2 crore people have been infected with Covid-19 worldwide, of which, more than 18 lakh people have succumbed to the disease. Meanwhile, the most powerful country in the world, with one of the best healthcare systems, saw about 2 crores of its 32-crore population become infected with Covid-19 and close to 3.5 lakhs die. Compare this with India, which has a population of about 140 crores. More than 1 crore people were infected and close to 1.5 lakh people died in the country. While the Indian graph is tapering further and bringing hope, the situation elsewhere in the world is not encouraging. Just last Saturday, the United States recorded the highest spike of 2.77 lakh cases in a day.
PM Modi must be credited for deciding that the economy can wait. Like a senior figure in a family, he decided to save the lives of each and every individual. There are many countries that thought they could tackle the crisis differently due to their strong healthcare systems, but failed and saw very high casualty figures. One country even tried to become a predator by buying cheap stocks in the depressed market. But India upheld its morality and showed the human face of its civilisational roots.
From manufacturing PPE kits, masks and sanitizers, creating extra beds and training paramedics on how to handle the situation, it was an onerous task never undertaken on such a huge scale ever before. Normally, in such situations, panic grips people because of the shortage of essential commodities and the uncertainty about events. But the Modi government ensured that the supply line was not disrupted. He appealed to traders and stockists not to hoard and appealed people not to panic. The Indian Railways plied at night to ensure that there were no shortages. Road transport ensured that these reached the right places. Even the supply of milk was never disrupted.
From depositing money directly into the accounts of the poor and the deprived to giving free ration to 80 crore people for eight months, it was a mammoth task that the government achieved with aplomb. In the absence of employment and money, they had nowhere to go. But the society was saved from a situation that could have turned volatile. From the Prime Minister down to every minister and health worker, everyone stressed on boosting immunity, and I have hardly heard anyone not knowing the art of boosting immunity using traditional herbs and medicines.
The lockdowns and the consciousness generated among the people prevented Covid-19 from touching the rural areas. We saw barricades put up by villagers for those coming from outside. By the time the disease touched the fringes of the rural population, Indian farmers had already produced a miracle as if to supplement the efforts of the government. India received a bumper kharif crop, rekindling the hope of a quick economic revival.
We have entered 2021 with the hope that the vaccine will soon be available to take care of critical and priority sections of the population. Unless a mishap happens, it appears that we have been successful in containing the disease. Of course, the entire country deserves praise for acting as one. However, one must not forget the leader who made this happen. And the nation must rise in unison to thank God for giving us a leader who knew what to do. He deserves our salute, irrespective of any world ratings.
The writer is convener of the Media Relations Department of the BJP and represents the party as a spokesperson on television debates. He has authored the most authentic book on the Prime Minister, called ‘Narendra Modi: The Game Changer’. The views expressed are personal.
On 24 March 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came on national television and announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days. Prior to the lockdown, US health expert Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan had warned that, in the worst-case scenario, about 60% of India’s population, or 80 crore people, would be infected with Covid-19.
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Democratic deficits and disaster management
Disaster management may turn into a bigger disaster if complaint handling
mechanisms fail to resonate in the Parliament. In our emerging concern for
Parliament’s democratic deficits, one need not be complacent to phenomenal challenges
that besiege disaster management in the country’s larger governance.
Substantive democracy led by ethics and the spirit of the Constitution is a flywheel of governance. After the suspension of 12 Rajya Sabha Members on the first day of Parliament’s winter session for the rest of its session, it is more than obvious that institutions of governance suffer from a culture of democratic deficits. That, Parliament is becoming a platform for reprimanding opposition, bowdlerising debates, pecking into question hour and using available disciplinary authority in a repressive manner hounds the Constitutional spirit. In sharp contrast to Subramaniam Swamy’s expulsion on the basis of a detailed report on his alleged anti-national activities produced before the House in 1976, the current expulsion with short liner allegations and that too from a previous session appears monkey business. A right to speak, be heard and debate within Parliament represents the strength of this apex national institution as a repository of freedom and aspirations of people. Anything other than this can prove to be suicidal to policy formulation especially in the management of disasters which is currently the highest priority besides being indispensable to achieve Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030. Crisis incidentally, overlooks procedures for the demand of speed and efficiency but this cannot escape the hawkish eyes of a belligerent or cantankerous opposition in the Parliament. Any disproportionate use of disciplinary authority will provide a cover to all illegalities, diversion of funds, human insecurity and rise of surreptitious developmental mafias in disaster-affected zones where it would not be easy for the country to escape its catastrophic impact for a long time to come.
Democracy and disaster management are Siamese twins and this relationship rests on five pillars of disaster management, that is, (i) participatory decision making; (ii) transparency of aid flows; (iii) financial safeguards; (vi) transparent procurement and contracting; (v) Project monitoring, evaluation and feedback. Disaster management may turn into a bigger disaster if complaint handling mechanisms fail to resonate in the Parliament. In our emerging concern for Parliament’s democratic deficits, one need not be complacent to phenomenal challenges that besiege disaster management in the country’s larger governance. In a 2015 report of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, it was found that a 10% increase in the per capita amount of disbursed funds leads to a 12.2 % increase in corruption. However, the disaster led fund transfers are much larger and therefore, offer a wider scope for corruption. This aspect is of particular interest in the kind of governance that weaker democracies suffer in non-tax transfers such as relief from national and international organisations.
The real source of democracy comes from community-based organisations such as the Panchayats in rural areas or Municipal Corporation in urban areas. At this level, tolerance to undemocratic measures is the least, reactions are mostly direct and confrontation more united and lasting against the government. From the tribal protest against three controversial bills in Manipur that lasted 600 days from 2015 to 2017 with eight bodies of their young boys kept in the morgue to the farmers’ protest against three contentious land laws lasting 466 days, one can see that these results of a united agitation are impossible from those areas distanced from communities. There was intensive research that went behind a transformative governance framework suggested by the post-Tsunami Hyogo Declaration of 2005 for a community-based action in disaster management. Hyogo Framework for Action, as it is referred to, directed governments to focus on community resilience-building as a priority. It stated, ‘communities and local authorities should be empowered to manage and reduce disaster risk by having access to the necessary information, resources and authority to implement actions for disaster risk reduction.’ It is sad that grassroots slippages of disaster management policies have weakened action against disasters. During the 2018 Kerala floods most of the Panchayat members from Kottayam to Idukki and Munnar shared that even though some alerts in the form of red, yellow and green were being sent to them, they were unable to make any sense of it as no one had ever spoken to them or trained them to understand it. This deficit of mutuality and participation runs through the system up to the Parliament yet no government ever pays any heed to priority action needed at the ground.
How democracy replenishes community resilience building is to be understood by our various research visits to regions marooned in hopeless islands of corrupt governance. Around 2009, tea plantation workers of 14 tea gardens of Dooars in West Bengal lost their livelihood and were pushed into starvation and death. The estate owners had fled bag and baggage without anyone’s knowledge to escape huge payments to workers under the Tea Board Act 1949, Plantation Labour Act 1951 and Industrial Disputes Act 1947 leaving behind ageing and unproductive tea gardens. Since these workers had known no other skill but plucking tea leaves they did not know how to cope up with the sudden closure and absentee government. Our visit to their broken homes raised hopes that someone is reaching out to them, they started coming out in numbers during our evening discussion groups arranged in their villages. These meetings also brought out a subtle presence of mafias which helped garden owners to flee without notice after which they illegitimately started collecting relief funds, indulging in trafficking across borders and also becoming their despotic masters. Our meetings which had nothing to give them except sharing information, inadvertently enlightened them on the Constitutional framework and the laws to strengthen their conviction during depressive times. Their awakening helped to revive the inactive Tea Board, receive a more meaningful restoration plan within the Panchayat Act and receive livelihood guarantee under MNREGA.
During 2015-17 our team visited Sundarbans in West Bengal and some districts of Manipur. Despite much segregation and high vulnerability due to its geographical location, Sundarbans could display a vibrant community action. We could talk to people waiting in queue for seeking the benefits of the public distribution system and also those who were repairing their homes to prevent snakes and tigers from entering. The place was vulnerable to many forms of disasters but people despite poverty were prepared with their indigenous techniques and plans using the most basic equipment for early warning, human and cattle rescue besides grain storage for emergency use. On the other hand in Manipur, as we travelled through Churchanpur, Thoubal, Senapati and Tamenglong people flocked around us as they felt that the government officials were finally visiting them for a change. Even their Ward Councilors had no knowledge of their responsibilities and availability of developmental funds for their Ward. The communities over there had not seen any government official visiting them. There was a big dent between the Meitei led government and Kuki, Paite and Nagas outside Imphal. No one had ever spoken to them and they felt that probably a change of government at the Centre has sent this JNU fact-finding team to their villages. It was a coincidence but in the election that followed this silent suffering tribal abode kicked out a non-participatory government in their silent revenge. If some of these examples could be a lighthouse on the power of democracy, Hyogo Declaration would become a serious enterprise.
A participatory framework provides a unique opportunity to promote a strategic and systematic approach to reducing vulnerabilities and risks to hazards besides identifying ways of building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters. Now that the community of world nations has been taking Hyogo spirit through Sendai Framework (2015-30) on the adoption of measures which address the three dimensions of disaster risk (exposure to hazards, vulnerability and capacity) a need for an increased resilience-building rests on nation’s ability to protect democracy at every Constitutional layer of governance. No technology, internet-based information or e-governance can replace physical meetings and face to face discussions and learning. Yet, how could this be possible if representatives of these people are not able to air concerns in the State Assembly of the Parliament? There are Rules as strict as Rule 256 and Rule 259 of the General Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Rajya Sabha, but the Constitutional spirit behind the rules combined with the ethics of enforcement defines the manner in which these Rules are to be used against representatives of people.
Parliament is not a confidential Committee Room of the Intelligence Bureau or the Pentagon Boardroom but a microcosm of society where the government’s democratic personality and tolerance to Constitutional norms are most needed. If this tolerance is lost, there would be no time for multihazard disasters to inflict our country stretching beyond the government’s capacity to prevent or manage them. It is hoped that the government in its true wisdom realises that the genie may not be released from the corked bottle.
The writer is president of Network Asia-Pacific Disaster Research Group, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.
PARLIAMENT MUST BE ALLOWED TO FUNCTION
Vice President Venkaiah Naidu should be commended for refusing to back down on his decision to suspend 12 MPs from the Rajya Sabha for the whole of the winter session for unruly conduct during the monsoon session. Public memory may be short, but it’s not that short that the bedlam Parliament witnessed in the monsoon session would be forgotten by now. In that session, MPs jumped up on tables, tore up documents, threw paper, misbehaved with the security staff, while at the same time playing victim and claiming that outsiders were brought in to manhandle them. Unprecedented scenes were witnessed in Parliament and the MPs who indulged in such mayhem deserved to be suspended. The parties that alleged that outsiders were brought in should have provided the evidence to back up such a charge, barring which the nation will be forced to consider only the video evidence that is available in the public domain and those clips show the most appalling behaviour by certain MPs.
That the Vice President, as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, feels strongly about the disruption of Parliament has been clear for some time. In September, while delivering a lecture on the topic of “if disrupting Parliament was an MP’s privilege or could be regarded as a facet of Parliamentary democracy”, he had said that disruption was “a certain negation of the spirit and the intention behind the rules of the House, the code of conduct and the parliamentary etiquette and the scheme of parliamentary privileges, all aimed at enabling effective performance of individual members and the House collectively. Given the consequences, disruption of proceedings clearly amounts to contempt of the House…” Even otherwise he has been unhappy that disruptions were leading to the loss of productivity of both Houses. The monsoon session this year was among the least productive in the Narendra Modi government’s second tenure. According to available statistics, out of 96 hours, the Lok Sabha functioned for just 21 hours and 14 minutes, which is 22% productivity, and Rajya Sabha for only 28 of the total 97.5 hours, with 28% productivity. Important bills were passed without any debate and the government too adjourned Parliament early. All this signify a complete breakdown of Parliamentary proceedings.
Unless due process is followed and every bill debated and amendments suggested and incorporated, the sanctity of a Parliamentary democracy cannot be upheld. Parliament is a place for debates, discussions and repartees, with the jousting limited to verbal rapier thrusts. Indian Parliament has a long tradition of that. A good Parliamentary debate can be fascinating and intellectually stimulating, especially when both the treasury and the opposition benches are peopled with great orators. It is a shame when their voices get lost in the din and the nation is deprived of their views. For that matter, even a limited amount of din is acceptable, but not physical aggression. And as VP Naidu correctly pointed out on Wednesday, “the members who have committed this sacrilege…have not expressed any remorse”. Forget about remorse, some of them think that it’s a matter of pride that they have been suspended for “raising their voices on behalf of the farmers”. It is not known how rushing to the well of the House, throwing paper planes, tearing up files, jostling and pushing are part of the exercise of raising one’s voice on any issue. Street politics should be left outside when entering Parliament. In this context, mention must be made of the unparliamentary language being used by certain Parliamentarians, outside Parliament. One of these worthies implicitly compared the president of a rival political party with a barking dog. It is incumbent on every party leadership to rein in these foul-mouthed entities, instead of trying to portray them as fire-brand people’s politicians.
As for the disruptions that have started once again, it is hoped that saner heads among the Opposition will prevail and the two Houses will be allowed to function. Every government needs to be held accountable for its actions and inactions on the floor of the House, every bill needs to be debated and discussed before they are made into law. Not allowing that to happen amounts to “sacrilege”.
ANALYSING FEAR AND SPECULATION OVER THE OMICRON VARIANT
Are we ready for another lockdown? The fear of Omicron, the new coronavirus mutation hitting our shores has raised a high level of anxiety amongst Indians. The predominant fear of course is a repeat of the horrors of the second wave. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has already asked the Prime Minister to stop all international flights from the affected countries. Kejriwal points out that a South African returnee has already landed in Chandigarh and tested positive for Covid-19. He has also infected his domestic and a family member. The genome sequencing is being done to figure out which strain of Covid-19 this is, and for now, the Union Health Minister has stated that there is no case of Omicron in India as yet.
Kejriwal, being Kejriwal, has taken to the social media amplifying the efforts his government is putting in to counter a fresh wave. The PM too we are told is holding several high-level meetings to ascertain the threat perception and our response to it. Testing has been ramped up at airports and there is talk about speeding up the booster shot and this is essential as the elderly and the health care workers have already had a gap of over six months since their last dose.
At stake are also the series of weddings and Christmas get-togethers planned as the post-Diwali surge showed an increase in cases but very few of them requiring hospitalisation. Instead, doctors claimed that it was dengue that was occupying the hospital beds. But dengue is an old familiar case study even though the cases were severe and the pollution was helping any. However, it is the fear of the unknown that has a more potent impact and the mere suggestion of another coronavirus mutation was enough to dispel any goodwill cheer.
However, the stock market is already mirroring the gloom felt in the industry. Businesses that had started are now again facing a road bump, especially the travel industry that was all set to reopen all international flights. Suddenly travel agents are getting cancellation requests on planned Christmas vacations. Offices that were opening up for offline work are also now rethinking this decision —and while there are inherent advantages to working from home and holding digital meetings, these do not match the productivity level of face to face meetings, especially in industries that require you to brainstorm.
However, we are being told by global health experts that the symptoms shown by patients infected with Omicron are mild and are mostly being treated at home. But until more data is known, one will have to live in the uncertainty that is fast becoming a regular feature in this Covid continuous world.
Why do Indians achieve more success in Western world than India?
On experiencing systems of the Western world, we come to realise what freedom and independence are. We get to see the true face of democracy in such nations. One finds no cause to hold ones’ opinions and is able to express them without any fear. In our country, even if one is right, still he can find himself in trouble if his expressions are to the dislike of the people in power.
We Indians are fundamentally noble and articulate people but this primary trait of ours had lost its significance as we had been ruled for centuries by invaders who exploited us to the maximum and unleashed a reign of misrule which went up to the extent that we almost forgot our identity and values. We had turned ourselves almost as slaves of our oppressors and this was not only confined to our body but our inner self too.
Islamic conquests made inroads into this subcontinent as early as the 8th century followed by the invasions of Mahmud Ghazni. The Delhi Sultanate was founded in the 13th century by the Central Asian Turks, who ruled major parts of the northern Indian subcontinent. This was followed by the Mughal Empire and their decline in the early 18th century that led to the rise of East India Company and consequent British Rule that lasted for over 200 years till 1947 when India was finally freed from the chains of slavery. However, it was not without a permanent scar on our motherland as it was not without the partition of this country.
We hoped to come out of this mindset that had deeply entrenched our hearts and minds during this long period of domination by invaders, but sadly we still continue to be under the shadow of the tendencies grown out of this long misrule and even after the passage of more than 70 years since we got independence, the misrule we faced earlier has not ended and we continue to watch it in one form or the other. Unfortunately, we continue to live under the same sort of oppression though in a different disguise. This takes us to believe that though the foreign rule ended, the legacy of misrule of that time is becoming more and more evident instead of being totally erased and wiped out from the face of this country.
Going by the above, one is led to believe that we Indians are not even now truly free and independent in real terms of the word. Freedom and independence connote freedom of thoughts and actions but without infringing such rights of others. What it further implies is that we are hesitant and scared in expressing our thoughts due to some dark fear of retribution from the powers that be. As a corollary, we have to accept the fact that after suffering foreign domination for a long period, we are and continue to be a suppressed society and also suppressed people. Our psyche always fears the unknown and we are totally shaken if we hear an unfamiliar knock at our doors. This has made us almost robotic and we only express the rehearsed lines as we are always controlled by the thought that if we express anything which is not found palatable, we would be made to suffer on one pretext or the other. So to find safety, we enter into our cocoon and seal our mouth.
We Indians are well aware of the rampant corruption around us. We are fully aware that some powerful people in our society are the most corrupt and there are anti-social elements but we see day in and day out such people ruling the roost and they use the powers at their command to serve their personal interests at the cost of this great nation. We have watched since independence such elements taking control of our destinies, but we have chosen to give a blind eye to this, just to ensure our personal well-being. It is there for everyone to see that barring a few, our political class is not entirely clean and the pity is that we stand helplessly and allow such things to continue.
But the contrast becomes crystal clear when we move to the Western world. On experiencing their systems, we come to realise what freedom and independence are. We get to see the true face of democracy in such nations. One finds no cause to hold ones’ opinions and is able to express them without any fear. In our country, even if one is right, still he can find himself in trouble if his expressions are to the dislike of the people in power. This has made us vulnerable before the political class and we don’t find ourselves safe even if we are following our normal routines. Things have come to such a pass that one is not safe while walking on the road. This has made our womenfolk and children more vulnerable.
It leads us to the question as to how Indians become important, rich, and leading lights when they are settled in some foreign land. We see everyday Indians achieving newer heights in the US, Europe, and many Asian countries. Most of these Indians enjoy ultra-high net worth and high status in these countries. The question arises of how such a thing is possible outside of our country. The answer lies in the fact that Indians are peace-loving people. When we are in our country, we are moulded by the prevailing environment that evidently is not clean and we feel helpless and sometimes make us choose the wrong options to achieve the right end. A further fact is that generally we Indians are intelligent and believe in toiling hard. But the predicament is that only a few attach values to such traits. However, the same people, when they go abroad, find that these values are given great importance and values. Indians achieve a higher success rate than the local people since they sacrifice their comforts and involve themselves with heart and soul in their endeavour but in comparison, a local wouldn’t make a similar sacrifice at the cost of his lifestyle and comforts. This endears the Indians to the local people and provides them with a priority. A similar approach can be noted as far as the academic field goes. Indians believe in achieving academic excellence and ignore extra-curricular activities when pursuing their education. Their effort is always to top in their career. Comparatively, people in such developed countries devote time to other activities such as games. This naturally makes Indians more suitable for various specialised fields and it is there for all to see that they hold important positions in foreign countries in such positions.
The need is to open eyes and call a spade a spade for the welfare of our teeming millions and this will help us to achieve the Eldorado we always dream of and then we will see no difference whether we are in India or abroad.
Jagdip Singh is Chairman, SIGMA GROUP of Industries and Hony. Consul General of South Korea. The views expressed are personal.
When we are in our country, we are moulded by the prevailing environment that evidently is not clean and we feel helpless and sometimes making us choose the wrong options to achieve the right end. A further fact is that generally we Indians are intelligent and believe in toiling hard. But the predicament is that only a few attach values to such traits. However, the same people, when they go abroad, find that these values are given great importance and values. Indians achieve a higher success rate than the local people since they sacrifice their comforts and involve themselves with heart and soul in their endeavour but in comparison, a local wouldn’t make a similar sacrifice at the cost of his lifestyle and comforts.
TMC WORKING TOWARDS UPSTAGING THE CONGRESS
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is clearly working on a plan—to replace the Congress as the main Opposition force in the country. To achieve this goal, she is picking up various leaders, even though questions can be raised about her choice. Those who have joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC) as the party seeks national prominence, do not have any ground presence except perhaps in Meghalaya. By inducting Kirti Azad, who lost the last Lok Sabha elections by nearly 5 lakh votes, and Pavan Varma, who was expelled by JDU and before that was a Rajya Sabha member without any grassroots connect, it is not known what sort of a national presence the TMC is hoping to get. In Meghalaya, 12 of the 17 Congress MLAs there may have joined the TMC, but when it comes to Lok Sabha seats, Meghalaya has only two, and even if Ms Banerjee wins all the 42 seats in Bengal, her tally will go up to 44 if she wins both those seats. So TMC may have become the main Opposition party in Meghalaya, courtesy Mukul Sangma, but there are grave doubts about whether this will have a domino effect and make other Congress leaders from the Northeast make a beeline for the TMC—this could have been an immediate possibility if the TMC had done well in the Tripura civic body elections, but it didn’t. It performed miserably, managing to win 1 out of 334 wards. And in spite of the claims being made by TMC spokespersons as the party emerging as the main Opposition face in Tripura, statistics show that the Left is still ahead of the TMC. The Tripura result was not commensurate with the hype created by the TMC, proving once again that unless there is hard work at the grassroots, no Opposition party can uproot a well-entrenched ruling party. Anti-incumbency is always a factor against any government, but for the Opposition to convert that into a critical mass of votes to overthrow a government depends on a lot of factors, including the severity of the anti incumbency and the grassroots connect of the Opposition. The TMC should have known this, for this is what happened to the BJP in the Bengal Assembly elections earlier this year. It just didn’t have the organisation on the ground to convert the anti-incumbency into votes for it to defeat Mamata Banerjee’s party. From the Tripura results it is anyway apparent that in this case, anti incumbency was not severe against Chief Minister Biplab Deb.
The whole national strategy of the TMC appears to be hinged on breaking other parties—particularly the Congress—and importing their organisation in different states, but for that the electoral performance of the TMC outside its stronghold Bengal will have to be up to the mark. Why else will senior Congress leaders consider replacing the Gandhis with Mamata Banerjee as their leader? The Tripura results would not have inspired confidence in such quarters, for it drove home the point that a stellar performance by TMC against the BJP outside of Bengal is unlikely at this point.
More importantly, a lot will depend on the Assembly elections that will take place next year. If Congress does well in Punjab, then it will be easier for the Gandhis to quell dissension within the ranks and the possibility of defections will recede in the backgroumd. So TMC may have overplayed its hand by name-calling the Congress, refusing to attend meetings called by it, and by defiantly announcing that it is only the TMC, and not Congress, that can take on the BJP.
Strategy is fine, but there is nothing like hard work on the ground and reputation of being a good administrator. It does not help the TMC’s case when Kolkata is named as the worst city in the country for providing jobs and economic growth, as shown by the first Sustainable Development Goals Urban Index released by Niti Aayog last week. Also, how can there be any national leadership role for a regional party without grassroots presence in more than one state? But then the strategy is based on the hope that there will be a fractured mandate in 2024, and a party with 40-45-odd seats will manoeuvre its way to power, upstaging the Congress. Only time will tell how effective this strategy is.
Aggressive TMC to jostle with Congress for Opposition space
Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, after her party’s decisive victory in West Bengal Assembly elections, has become aggressive and is now aspiring to dethrone the Congress from playing a leadership role for the entire Opposition.
Parliament’s winter session commenced on Monday. Although it is hoped that the rancours of the Monsoon session would subside since the issues that the Opposition cited for their ire no longer exist, an aggressive Trinamool Congress itching to play a larger opposition role may play spoilsport and create problems of floor management.
There are other parties too that would be keen to send a signal that they are not far behind if it comes to a street fight. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress would use this session to reposition themselves for the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh due early next year. All these parties are likely to try to achieve Muslim consolidation by raising related issues.
It would be interesting to figure out if the Parliament can discuss the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) issue. Those who are trying to compare the farm legislations with the CAA are grossly mistaken since this would mean taking away the rights of the people already granted to them. In the case of farm legislations, nothing was being imposed and no section was negatively impacted by withdrawal. If those who wanted to benefit would have come on the streets in favour of the legislations and against those farmers agitating against the three legislations, this would have created a difficult situation.
These parties would also like to keep raking issues related to farmers. With his increasing isolation, Rakesh Tikait is becoming more aggressive. He has been abusive and challenging the government. The opposition parties may find it politically expedient to give fodder to him and keep alive the issue and try to wean away farmers from the BJP. From the perspective of the Opposition, the agitation must continue at least till the Uttar Pradesh elections. From the BJP’s perspective, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already extended the velvet glove by withdrawing the three legislations. Tikait has already said that he would work to defeat the BJP. The government is being challenged to act tough and use force which it has been avoiding.
An interesting discussion would be on the issue of the MSP. Opposition parties have demanded that it should be made legal. Can the government do it? What are the issues impacting this and is it helpful for the country? What is the purpose of MSP and how it should be administered? The government has said that the MSP regime would continue as before. Should we not wait for the Prime Minister’s decision to set up a committee to make the MSP more effective and transparent. What is the hurry? The government has shown its commitment to the MSP by spending more money (about Rs 85,000 crore) than ever before on purchasing Rabi crops (wheat). This time money was sent directly into the accounts of farmers under DBT. A dispassionate debate would make the issue clear for people.
Nobody is in doubt that TMC leader Mamata Banerjee, after her party’s decisive victory in West Bengal assembly elections, has become very aggressive and is now aspiring to dethrone the Congress from playing a leadership role for the entire Opposition. The TMC deciding not to attend a meeting of Opposition parties called by Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Monday intended to send this message loud and clear.
Instead, the TMC is holding its national coordination committee meeting at the residence of Banerjee in Kolkata on the same day. During her visit to Delhi last week, she did not pay even a courtesy call to Gandhi and when asked, she asked bluntly if this was needed or compulsory. TMC leaders are certain that now it is Banerjee vs Gandhi tug of war on who would be the Opposition’s face.
Of late, the TMC mouthpiece Jago Bangla has been critical of Congress and its leadership. It has described the Congress as incompetent and incapable and has charged Congress leaders as being interested merely in armchair politics rather than fighting for the people on the street. It spelt out that Banerjee and not Gandhi was the real face of the Opposition.
On the eve of the Winter session, Banerjee gave a wake-up call to the Congress by inducting former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma and 11 other Congress MLAs from Meghalaya into the TMC and, thereby, making her party the main opposition in the state. She also welcomed former Haryana Congress president Ashok Tanwar and Congress leader Kriti Azad into the party during her Delhi visit. Already many other Congress leaders have joined the TMC in Goa. Sushmita Dev has joined the TMC in Assam.
One need not be too intelligent to understand the message Banerjee has given to the entire opposition and other Congress leaders who are unhappy with the leadership of the Gandhi family. She is no longer shy of claiming that she and her party can lead the opposition and not the Congress.
This newfound power and assertiveness will force it to flex muscles during the Winter session that has 20 working days. She will chart out an independent course and try to get maximum mileage through her street fighter image and no holds barred fight inside Parliament in full media presence. This is exactly what the TMC had done during the last Monsoon session where TMC MPs were at the forefront in disrupting Parliament functioning. They were involved in pushing and shoving parliament security staff.
The TMC would be more aggressive also to hide its failures in Tripura. Despite the heroics in Delhi last week, the party is bruised because of its abysmal performance in the municipal elections in Tripura. The BJP has won 329 of 334 seats. In Agartala Corporation, the party has won 51 out of 51 seats. Neither the Left nor the TMC could open their account. The Prime Minister has said this is a result of good governance.
TMC general secretary Abhishek Banerjee drew solace that it had got a substantial percentage of votes but could not explain its failure to give a fight to the BJP. He has alleged that the BJP has “butchered democracy” in Tripura. So sad that the party that has made violence its tool to achieve political supremacy in West Bengal is talking in these terms. The TMC has already sounded out that it would raise the issue in Parliament. The issues that the Opposition claimed provoked them were farmers’ agitation and Pegasus spyware controversy. Both the issues no longer exist. The farmers’ agitation has lost the punch after the government decided to withdraw the three farm legislations. The Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha have already passed the repeal bill on the first day of the winter session as per the promise made by the government.
The issue of Pegasus is being looked into independently by a three-member expert committee under retired Supreme Court Judge RV Raveendran. The committee has been set up by the Supreme Court and hence the Parliament, by standard convention, would do well not to discuss the issue which is being considered by the Court. The government’s stand is clear from day one that there has been no illegal snooping.
At an all-party meeting with the government, opposition leaders showed their inclination to raise various issues such as legal guarantee on the MSP, price rise, divestment of PSUs, CAA, Coal situation, and Lakhimpur violence. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, present from the government side, urged the opposition that leaders should ensure smooth functioning of parliament so that members can have healthy debates.
Union Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Pralhad Joshi said after the meeting, “There have been many suggestions. The government is ready to discuss all issues under the rule, without disruptions. The government hopes that there will be a good discussion in the Parliament.” The Prime Minister has already said before the start of the session that the government was ready to discuss all issues and answer all questions.
But the healthy debate is the biggest casualty when the opposition tries to create optics for public mobilisation outside. The common man on the street would like to watch the debate and listen to the arguments of both the government and the opposition. This makes them understand whether the government is on the right track. The Opposition also gets a chance to present their arguments and earn support. Parliamentary debates are the opportunities to put the government on the mat.
The crucial issue is whether the opposition will do this or they will fritter away the opportunity by raising demands that the government would not be keen to accept. By creating ruckus or by disrupting proceedings using other means would not help. They must appreciate that the government has the majority to get any legislation passed. An informed debate would help the cause of people. Creating ruckus does not help the Opposition’s cause.
The writer is the author of ‘Narendra Modi: the GameChanger’. A former journalist, he is a member of BJP’s media relations department and represents the party as spokesperson while participating in television debates. The views expressed are personal.
Banerjee is no longer shy of claiming that she and her party can lead the opposition and not the Congress. This newfound power and assertiveness will make TMC flex muscles during the Winter session that has 20 working days. She will chart out an independent course and try to get maximum mileage through her street fighter image and no holds barred fight inside Parliament in full media presence.
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