May 1, May 2

Sunday’s outcome won't change Monday’s imperative: Its labharthi politics shown up, government needs to step up

On May 1, the official opening up of the vaccination drive to the 18-45 age group is hardly likely to stir things up on the ground. State after state, from BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh to Congress-ruled Punjab, from Left-ruled Kerala to AAP-ruled Delhi, has indicated an inability to start. This is due to the shortage of vaccine stocks and the imperative to first give the second dose to those waiting for it in the 45-plus age group. On May 2, results of five important elections will come in and the outcomes, in West Bengal in particular, will be closely read for what they say about the way of the political winds. Can the failure to launch on May 1 be countered or overtaken by the writing on the election scoreboard on May 2? Can the BJP-led government that is in charge of the nation’s flailing anti-Covid fight look for validation or even absolution from its electoral showing in the states? On the morning of the abortive expansion of the vaccination drive, those are not the questions. Indeed, May 1 is joined to May 2 — but the question that links them is this: How did a party that has perfected an impressive election machinery, and which has, in government, designed a political and policy welfarism that seamlessly feeds into its electoral campaigns, lead the nation to this terribly depleted arsenal against Covid?

This question needs to be asked not just because responsibility must be owned and accountability needs to be fixed. But also, and more, because there’s a job to be done, a fight has to be fought and won, and so going forward, lessons must be learnt. The fact is that a substantial part of the BJP’s political-electoral successes flows from its ability to target the citizen as “labharthi”, the beneficiary of schemes that deliver visibly, in the public provisioning of private goods — be it the Ujjwala cylinder or the Ayushman Bharat card. The hard fact also is that, today, on vaccines and oxygen, the strongest weapons against a virus that spreads and devastates, the networks and strategies and data-gathering that fuel the BJP’s labharthi politics, are coming up woefully short. This failure is also framed in the pandemic’s second wave in the Modi government’s communication — or lack of it.

A government led by a leader who is an effective communicator, a prime minister who speaks directly to the people even if that means by-passing the mediating institutions, has not found the reassuring words or extended the healing touch at a time when the people need it most. Even its most experienced ministers, it seems, have lapsed into silence. This is not to say that a well-worded speech was, or is, the uppermost need of the hour. It is to point out that amid the sounds of the creaking and crumbling health infrastructure, a sense of helplessness and abandonment is growing, unchecked. The pandemic’s devastating second wave calls for the government to step up to it and to the people. That imperative will remain just as urgent on Monday, whatever the outcome on Sunday.

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