India may have made a hesitant start to reviving the stagnant economy after the announcement of guidelines and rules for ‘Unlock 1.0’, but the ruling BJP has certainly leap-frogged over several early versions of ‘Revive Politics’.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah's three back-to-back 'virtual' rallies, starting 7 June, addressing the people of Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal, is a categorical signal to state leaders and cadre that it is now time to prioritise politics and win elections.
Significantly, Amit Shah’s speeches neither directed the party network to remain engaged with sewa or service activities, that was previously reiterated by top leaders on every occasion, nor did he make mention of the continuing challenges posed by the pandemic which is unmistakably heading into a difficult phase. On the contrary, Shah's speech on 9 June ended with a clear-cut appeal to the people of West Bengal to vote out the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee, when elections are held in the summer of 2021.
BJP’s Energies Being Redirected Towards Political Campaigns
On Monday, 8 June, the Union Home Minister vowed to turn Odisha into a ‘BJP fortress’ even though no assembly polls are due till 2024. And, on Sunday, 7 June, in his first 'virtual' address, Shah expressed confidence that the BJP-Janata Dal (U) alliance in Bihar would secure a two-third majority when elections are held this fall.
While Modi's focus was on publicising that there was a long “list of historic actions and decisions taken in national interest,” JP Nadda underlined that plans were being drawn to hold “more than 250 public meetings and 500 rallies”. In addition, the BJP has intentions of enlisting 10 million party workers in Bihar to carry out door-to-door campaigns before the assembly elections. Undoubtedly, the party's energy is now being redirected to political campaigns after almost three months of relative inactivity.
A Booklet That Praises Modi’s ‘Proactive & Alert’ Stance in Handling COVD
In an indication of the personality cult that surrounds the prime minister and how he is the prime driver and sole formulator of strategy, Nadda also stated that BJP workers across the country shall “take the letter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to 10 crore families in the coming days by using different means of technology”.
To ensure that every person representing the party spoke in unison, the BJP has also prepared a 23-point booklet prepared for every party spokesperson and other leaders, especially those who have a public profile and often represent the BJP in the media.
The booklet applauds the prime minister’s “pro-active and alert” stance while handling the COVID-19 crisis.
It terms the call for lockdown as “Modi's forward-looking step” and a decision that enabled “India tackle the challenges (from the pandemic) effectively.”
The booklet is built around the slogans of “clear policies, bold moves – taken with full conviction” and “marching towards self-reliance”. As in his letter dated 30 May, the booklet too recapitulates claims regarding the ‘achievements’ of Modi 1.0 and political decisions taken by Modi 2.0 in 2019 – most significantly, the decisions on Kashmir's status, criminalising instant divorce among Muslims, and securing the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The booklet, as well as various leaders, also stakes claim for facilitating the Ram temple's construction at Ayodhya, by claiming that the government ensured that “correct arguments” were presented in the courts.
Shah’s Tone & Tenor Imply That Centre Has Handled COVID Crisis ‘Effectively’, And It’s Now Time to Look Beyond
Shah's three speeches – which set the tone for other party leaders who hit the campaign trail in Bihar first and later in West Bengal – follow the template created by Modi in his public communication, and reiterate the points listed in the booklet of ‘Talking Points’. Significantly, these lectures are conspicuous in their scanty references to the persisting threats to people's lives and the national economy due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Shah also listed all 'steps' that the Centre had undertaken to provide safe passage home to migrant workers.
His tone and tenor suggested that the crisis had been tackled, and it was time to look beyond.
Yet, ironically, his claims were made almost at the same time as a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court was stating that it was of the view that “certain further directions are necessary to be issued to ameliorate the conditions of the migrant workers.”
In contrast to the virtual 'closure report' on the migrants' issue that Shah presented, the apex court has given several directions to the Centre. These include "details of all schemes which can be availed by migrant workers who have returned to their native places", and details of current schemes that can be beneficial in the states for the migrant labourers, including those for “providing employment”.
Besides, the Court asked to set up counselling centres and help desks to assist migrants in seeking "employment and benefits which can be availed by them under the different schemes". Quite clearly, the Supreme Court has a different perspective on the migrants issue than the Home Minister.
Repeated Mention Of Modi’s Tackling of the COVID Crisis Being ‘Novel’
It appears that the electoral plank of the BJP, as evident from Modi's letter to citizens and the three speeches by Shah, seeks to ‘sidestep’ the coronavirus crisis. The narrative is straightforward: That the government tackled the pandemic ‘admirably’ – that timely preventive measures were taken, adequate assistance was provided to people during lockdown, and sufficient stimulus had been provided to get the economy up and running.
There is repeated mention of Modi’s approach to tackling the threat from the virus being ‘novel’, especially in his capacity to enlist the support of 1.3 billion people.
In his letter, Modi had congratulated the people for their "sheer confidence and resilience". Shah also repeated his leader’s views of the janata curfew being an unprecedented event. The BJP continues to flag taali-thaali-diya (clapping, clanging plates and lighting lamps) as exemplary acts of public participation in meeting a challenge, although questions remain if they actually contributed in warding off the threat of the virus.
The targets of attacks in Shah's three speeches were understandably different. The harshest attacks were reserved for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who was accused of numerous charges, both for 'failures' during the pandemic as well as previously. Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister of Odisha, was fortunately spared name-calling.
BJP Has Fallen Back On ‘Old, Divisive Themes’
Peculiarly, in a case of the pot calling the kettle black, Shah arraigned Mamata Banerjee for "filing false cases against journalists".
Without detailing that the state government had a previously running health insurance scheme, Shah attacked Banerjee for disallowing the Ayushman Bharat Yojana, presented as a panacea for health management of the poor. He also chose silence over full disclosure – that Telangana and Odisha too have not opted for this scheme, the cost of which is shared 60-40 between Centre and State.
The perusal of assertions and claims by party leaders and documents in the recent past shows that the BJP is not inclined to either defend its bastions or challenge an adversary where it is in power, primarily on the basis of its handling of the COVID-19 challenge.
Instead of seeking mandates in the future on the basis of shepherding people through the sternest ordeal of their lives, the BJP has fallen back on old, familiar divisive themes: a modicum of welfarism, coupled with a hyper-nationalistic narrative in which the ‘enemy’ is both within and outside the country.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)