Each time the political establishment in this country, which is in this context a ruling party that defeats anti-incumbency and is confident of getting re-elected, gets away with it, it grows another impervious layer on what is an already thick skin. Morbi, the ceramic capital of India in Gujarat, where the 145-year-old hanging bridge broke and killed at least 135 people, reveals the anatomy of how political immunity is constructed.
Such is the strength of the immunity that the BJP has gained after 27 years in power in Gujarat and eight years in power at the Centre that human-made disasters matter little. It would have been highly unusual in normal times for India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to hold a high-level meeting with officialdom to personally instruct them on how to rescue and hand out relief to the victims of the disaster.
By inserting himself into the Morbi disaster, Mr Modi has obviously tried to control the political damage on the one hand and extend the strength of his immunity to the Gujarat government which faces re-election on December 1 and December 5. The shadowy chief minister, Bhupendra Patel, ought to have been the man on the spot; he was not.
Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Morbi, his almost Florence Nightingale act at the spruced-up civil hospital, his directions to the Army, the Navy and the National Disaster Management Force to do their best and the announcement of a paltry Rs 2 lakhs from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund were the highlights of the response to the disaster. If it were not election time and Mr Modi was not campaigning hard to beat the embargoes of the election code of conduct, it raises a question, albeit a hypothetical one: would he have gone to the disaster site to survey what had happened? Would Prime Minister Modi have exerted his authority to hold a high level-meeting to instruct officials to thoroughly investigate the lapses of the municipality that gifted Overa the contract for the bridge’s repair and maintenance?
The differences between the Morbi disaster and the collapse of a bridge under construction in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi district in July this year, killing at least 15 people, are many. The similarities are startling. In both instances, the infrastructure collapsed. In both instances the contractors were held accountable. Arrests of the contractors were made. Political heads did not roll.
The difference between Morbi and Varanasi is that Gujarat is Mr Modi’s fiefdom, whereas Uttar Pradesh is definitely chief minister Yogi Adityanath country. In Gujarat, wishy-washy chief ministers are packed off and new, equally nondescript, chief ministers are appointed as proxies for Mr Modi. The election in December 2022 will be a test of Mr Modi’s winnability rather than that of the chief minister. And Mr Modi definitely needs to win.
To do so, Mr Modi went to Morbi and public attention was diverted by his visit, his concern and his hands-on response to disaster management. The message which was delivered is that Gujarat is under Mr Modi’s personal care. The personal tragedies of the 135 people who died has been overshadowed by Mr Modi’s presence.
In contrast, in Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s Lok Sabha constituency, he neither visited the site of the collapsed bridge nor did he rush to the hospital to offer consolation to the injured nor did he meet the families of the victims. His presence was not necessary. Chief minister Yogi Adityanath had the situation well under control. In fact, in other infrastructure disasters, even on the eve of state Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, like the expressway linking Chitrakoot to Etawah through Bundelkhand, Mr Modi’s presence was unnecessary, even though he had inaugurated the road just days before it broke up.
In Kolkata, the collapse of the flyover on Vivekananda Road in 2016, killing 27 people and injuring another 80 or so others, was campaign fodder in the political battle between Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress and Mr Modi’s BJP. About it, he said: “Such a huge bridge collapsed, what did these people say? They said it is but an Act of God. Didi (Mamata), this was not an act of God, but an act of fraud, fraud.” Fraud in Kolkata is not fraud in Morbi, in Varanasi and the Bundelkhand Expressway.
The flyover disaster in Kolkata did not affect the outcome of the West Bengal Assembly election in 2016. Ms Banerjee romped home. Disasters caused by collapsing infrastructure, for fraud or other reasons, did not affect the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh election. The Morbi disaster may not affect the Gujarat election outcome.
Death from human made disasters is an irreplaceable loss for the affected families and a tragedy for the individual. Death caused by the abject failure of the public health system during the Covid-19 pandemic did not affect the outcome of the UP elections for the BJP. The floating bodies on the Ganga or the improvised cremation spots on the roads and in car parks did not diminish Yogi Adityanath or Narendra Modi as icons in the popular imagination. Farmers died in the year-long protest; but the farmers voted the BJP back to power in Uttar Pradesh.
These deaths do not count in electoral politics. Voters make choices based on complicated calculations of cost of change versus the benefits of voting back the same ruling party. These may be unhappy choices, but are made nevertheless, because the alternative is not attractive enough. To vote out a ruling party that has been in power for 27 years means voters will have to remake the networks that connect them to the powerful if a new set of people are elected.
Two conditions will have to be fulfilled for Morbi to matter; first, the voters in Gujarat have to be totally fed up with the ruling party, that is, the BJP, and second, the voters have to be offered a viable and powerful alternative. Unlikely as it may appear to be, Mr Modi is apprehensive because he has lashed out at “Urban Naxals” for “instigating our gullible and spirited youth” and for having “changed their appearance”.
He warned that these forces were out to destroy the country. To defend and protect the country, Mr Modi parachuted into Morbi to immunise it from the Opposition in the shape of the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress. A divided Opposition does not add up to a electable alternative and this adds to the immunity of the political establishment from being affected by the consequences of fraud or failure or negligence.