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Is BJP Worried About Unscientific Suggestions From Its Supporters?

Individual BJP members have come up with a range of bizarre COVID solutions—from blowing a conch to using cow dung.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Image of BJP’s lotus symbol and an illustration of the coronavirus used for representational purposes.
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In recent months, a range of unscientific claims have been proffered — and uncertified medicines offered — by enterprising members of the undivided Hindutva family, as ‘solutions’ for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that has been rampaging through the country.

The Modi government had done little to put the record straight on any of this till a virulent attack on modern medicine by one of its favoured swamis, Baba Ramdev, raised the hackles of the Indian Medical Association (IMA).

For Ramdev had chosen to describe the allopathic treatment being used to treat COVID-19 as a “tamasha” (a farce), “bekaar” (worthless), and “diwaliya” (a failure).

A Stern Letter to Baba Ramdev: What It Means

On 23 May, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan wrote a sharply-worded letter to Ramdev, the founder of Patanjali Ayurveda, asking him to withdraw his “objectionable and unfortunate statement”, saying it would “break the morale of doctors and weaken our fight against the pandemic”.

The letter, clearly intended for public consumption, was posted on Twitter. Ramdev withdrew his statement but not before claiming, “We have also, by using Ayurveda and yoga, saved many lives during the pandemic; this also should be respected.”

It was perhaps for the first time that anyone of consequence in the Modi government had publicly criticised a member of the undivided Hindutva family — and that includes not just official members of the Sangh Parivar in the BJP and RSS, but also likeminded affiliates and associates — for making an unscientific remark, especially one that could endanger public health.

Bhopal MP Pragya Singh Thakur’s endorsement of cow urine extract as “life saving,” and which she said she took regularly to protect herself from lung infections and contracting COVID, went uncontested by her superiors in the party. As did two other party MLAs, Surendra Singh in Uttar Pradesh, and Suman Haripriya in Assam, who, echoing Ms Thakur, also claimed that drinking cow urine would protect people from the coronavirus.

BJP Members’ Bizarre COVID ‘Solutions’

Indeed, individual BJP members have come up with a range of bizarre solutions. Party leader Gopal Sharma blowing on a shankh, burning incense — described as ‘holy smoke’ — in a rickshaw cart, and chanting ‘Jai Shriram’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’ through the streets of Meerut has been captured on video as has his message — following his example, he claimed, would ‘keep the coronavirus at bay and increase the oxygen content in the air’.

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Madhya Pradesh Culture Minister Usha Thakur’s suggestion that conducting a ‘yagna chikitsa’ would prevent the third wave of COVID-19 triggered off a series of havans. The state’s pro-tem speaker Rameshwar Sharma claimed that building the Ram temple in Ayodhya would end the pandemic. Another leader claimed that the lavish application of cow dung on one’s body would protect one from the disease; in Gujarat, several sadhus were photographed entirely swathed in cow dung.

But till the IMA demanded a retraction from Ramdev on what was seen as a direct attack on modern medicine, no one in the BJP government felt it necessary to take anyone to task, even though many of these unscientific solutions had been amplified through WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms.

How Ramdev Was ‘Rewarded’ & What It Means

So, does Dr Vardhan’s letter to Ramdev mean that the BJP is now worried that these wild suggestions emerging from Sangh family members is harming its reputation as a rational political party?

No, not at all. For one, two days after Ramdev offered a tepid apology to the Union Health Minister, he was rewarded by a BJP government. The Haryana health minister announced on 25 May that one lakh Patanjali Coronil kits would be distributed free of cost among the state’s COVID-19 patients, with half the cost borne by Patanjali and the other half by the state government’s COVID Relief Fund.

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Interestingly, this comes against the backdrop of another brush that Ramdev had with the IMA.

In February this year, the IMA had objected to Dr Vardhan sharing the stage with Ramdev when the latter launched Coronil, claiming that the Ayush Ministry had certified it as a medicine that could be used to treat COVID-19 as per the World Health Organization’s (WHO)’s certification scheme. Patanjali later clarified that the certification was granted by the Centre, and WHO does “not approve or disapprove any drugs”.

If BJP Hasn’t Officially ‘Endorsed’ Unscientific Solutions, Will Its Reputation Still Take a Hit?

Conversations with party insiders, too, suggest that the BJP is in no way embarrassed by the bizarre solutions on offer. As one party leader put it:“The BJP has not officially endorsed any of these suggestions, so why should they affect its reputation?”

Besides, they say, individuals like Pragya Singh “are not subject to party discipline — and any effort to do so would only boomerang on the leadership; it would create a nuisance. And let us not forget that she has an individual following”. Indeed, the BJP believes that it can walk the tightrope on this. By not actively endorsing any of these solutions, it feels it cannot be held responsible for these statements.

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How BJP ‘Cashed-In’

On the other hand, it can cash in on the huge followings people like Ramdev or Pragya Thakur have. Indeed, during the ‘Positivity Unlimited’ programme (11-15 May) organised by the COVID Response Team (CRT), a Sangh family-inspired initiative to distract attention from the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths and lack of medical infrastructure to deal with the imploding situation, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, Pujya Acharya Pramansagar, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Shankaracharya Vijayendra Saraswati, Acharya Vidyasagar and Mahant Gyandev Singh were invited to speak. This was in the hope that their individual followings would be drawn in and distracted from the thousands of personal tragedies that the pandemic has resulted in.

However, what the party is currently concerned with is the widespread criticism of the way it has handled the pandemic and mismanaged its vaccination programme, lest it affect it negatively in future electoral contests.

And this took on a worrisome colour, when Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat appeared to be publicly taking the Modi government to task, even though he worded himself carefully.

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Mohan Bhagwat’s ‘Attack’ On Modi Govt Over COVID Mismanagement

On the concluding day of the ‘Positivity Unlimited’ lectures, Mr Bhagwat spoke. Though it was later downplayed by the Sangh Parivar, there is no denying that he held the government responsible for the crisis: “We are facing this situation because, whether it was the government, administration or public, everyone dropped their guard after the first wave despite indications from doctors.”

It was a clear attack on the Modi government, and he was responding to the feedback that he had been given by the RSS rank and file.

Of course, his deputy, Dattatreya Hosabale, had taken a different tack: he had, echoing the government line (he is known to be close to Mr Modi) spoken of “destructive and anti-Bharat forces” creating ‘negativity and mistrust’ in the country. Whether this would imply that there are differences in the RSS or whether the organisation wishes to send out both messages is of course, not clear.

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How RSS ‘Distanced’ Itself from BJP Amid COVID Chaos

Even though BJP/RSS members or their acolytes — such as Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, RSS leader Ram Madhav and journalist Prabhu Chawla — wrote articles in the mainstream media to defend the prime minister’s role in the pandemic, Mr Bhagwat’s message reached its target.

RSS sources told this writer that the Sarsanghchalak clearly wanted to distance the RSS from the BJP in the matter of the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. “He needed to disassociate the RSS from the failures of the government — it was like buying an insurance policy,” said one RSS source.

Belatedly, the RSS, last month, set up COVID camps to help those falling ill. In the past, the organisation has been quick off the mark to send its swayamsewaks to set up camps at disaster sites, but this time, the virulence of the disease had ensured that it took its time to get its act together. But clearly, it is now a case of all hands on the deck.

(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and HT. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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