Leveraging death to win votes – lack of a strong Opposition weakens India’s fight against the pandemic
Aditi Kumaria Hingu
India is in the midst of the second Covid19 wave and as is well known by now, the wave has hit harder than anyone expected. Every day brings news of family and friends infected – most recover, but sadly some do not. The media is full of stark images of crowded hospitals, shortage of medicines, oxygen, and beds etc. The doomsday scenario is further amplified by all the verified and unverified (read fake) content that is being circulated on social media. The same is causing further damage as it is causing a fear psychosis, leading to black marketing, hoarding and illegal profiteering of medical essentials.
The Central Government has come in for a fair share of criticism for having let its guard down too soon. Media has been quick to pick up images of crowded election rallies and the ‘by-now-vilified’ Kumbh Mela and label them as super spreader events. The Opposition Parties have all come together to use this public health catastrophe to further tarnish the Government and score political brownie points with a scared and gullible public.
Let us examine facts rationally – The Khumb mela (an outdoor event spread over many weeks) was open only to pilgrims with a confirmed Covid negative test. However, when the upsurge in cases started, the Prime Minister appealed to the religious leaders to do a symbolic snan (holy bath) and end the Kumbh a fortnight earlier than usual. The religious leaders compiled with the request and the mela came to a premature end.
Contrast this with the much-hyped and much-supported (by all Opposition leaders) ‘middlemen rally’ in the winter of 2020. These middlemen (under the guise of being farmers) sieged the national capital, created law and order disturbances because the New Farm Bills were ending their monopolistic hold over agricultural produce trading. 11 rounds of talks have taken place between the ‘farmers’ unions and Central Government since Oct 2020, but despite the Central Government’s willingness to lend an open ear and mind, the so-called farmers have been intransigent. It is estimated that at any point in time there were about half a lakh protestor at these sites – living in close quarters. Given that the protestors were coming in tranches, it is estimated that over the 3 months period, more than 2 lac people had been part of these protests. Was this congregation not a super spreader event? Since this ‘middlemen’ rally was a politically motivated event to cause embarrassment to the Government, it got active support from the Opposition. Not one Opposition leader requested the protestors to avoid congregating and instead have a symbolic protest, considering the pandemic.
The vaccine hesitancy is another case when the Opposition has thoroughly let down the nation.
On January 3, 2021, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) had approved two COVID-9 vaccine candidates, Covaxin and Covishield, for conditional use in the government’s immunisation programme. But soon after, a leading Samajwadi Party leader in Uttar Pradesh said that he will not take the “BJP vaccine” – thus sowing seeds of distrust against the vaccine. Opposition leaders viciously attacked the government for approving the Bharat Biotech developed Covaxin for emergency use, thus further creating doubts in the people’s minds. Congress ruled Chhattisgarh refused Centre’s help of Covaxin citing that it did not want this vaccine. In fact, Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Kerala (all Opposition ruled) refused Covaxin stocks even after Bharat Biotech released interim data showing 81% vaccine efficacy in phase 3 trials.
LDF ruled Kerala received 37, 760 doses of Covaxin in January. The same had not been used till March. Is this not a crime against humanity? When leading Congress politicians questioned the efficacy of Covaxin, they were donning the mantle of becoming ‘super spreaders’ of rumours, mis-information and vaccine hesitancy.
The Opposition had not even spared the Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine. The Government was criticised for approving it too soon. The same Opposition is now criticising the same Government for not having approved foreign manufactured vaccines earlier…. the Government is wrong if it does, the Government is wrong if it does not.
Furthermore, Health continues to remain a State Subject. While the Central Government did impose a national lockdown last year (for which it was again criticised by the Opposition and their supporters), the onus of containing the spread is now more on the states. Decisions on state/city/micro lockdowns, beefing up health infrastructure, setting up oxygen plants are to be taken and executed by States.
As per reports, the Centre had invited tenders for setting up Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) Oxygen Plants in public health facilities in October 2020. It sanctioned Rs.200 Cr funding for 162 PSA Oxygen Plants, but as of 18th April 2021, only 33 have been set up by States. Many hospitals opposed the plants as that would have stopped their local purchase of oxygen cylinders from obliging vendors. Who is to blame here? The Centre that allocated funding or the State that did not use (or worse misused) the funding? In fact, Delhi was allotted funds for 8 plants, but set up only one PSA Oxygen Plant. The Delhi Chief Minister did not deem it critical enough to ensure that all 8 plants were set up but thought it was important to telecast his appeal to the PM for Oxygen. Likewise, Maharashtra was allotted funds for 10 plants, but set up only 1.
India has a federal structure of governance, in which the Chief Ministers have immense authority, responsibility and significant resources to manage the affairs of their State. Blaming the Prime Minister for lack of oxygen in hospitals is easy – all it needs is a few willing journalists, a few evocative pictures and willing social media activists. Getting your own house in order is tough because that involves hard work, integrity, and a genuine concern for the citizens.
A strong opposition is integral to any democracy. It works as a foil to the government and brings in checks and balances. A strong opposition has an ideology that it is committed to. But in India, the Opposition has only one ideology – destabilize the Government so that we get the chance to make money through illegal means and abuse power for our own good. It is the curse on India that we do not even have one genuine leader among the Opposition cadres.
A nation comes together as one in a time of crisis. Mutual ill-will and feuds are forgotten as people join hands to fight a common enemy. It is the tragedy of India that even now, the focus of the Opposition is to project the country and the Government in a poor light. The attempt is not about fighting the pandemic or saving lives. The concerted attempt is to create anarchy, chaos and ill-will to bring down a democratically elected government.
Elections happen. People vote. Leaders debate and campaign. New leaders get elected. There is a right time for everything. But this is not the time for any of these. This is a time to get down to the brass tacks, introspect, fix the system where it is broken (and no, the PM cannot do this alone!). This is the time to save lives, heal the ill, provide dignity and livelihood to the affected. Oppositional politics can wait. But who cares about people dying? Families destroyed? Livelihoods snatched? If this pandemic can be used to destabilize and bring down a democratically elected Central Government, then it would have played nicely into the Opposition’s hands, a few million deaths being an insignificant price to pay.