The whole world is in the grip of an unprecedented pandemic. India is now among the worst affected countries. The number of infections is rising alarmingly. The fatality rates are creeping up.
Hospital infrastructure is under great stress, and in some cases in danger of collapse.
There are reports of crematoriums unable to keep pace with the bodies being brought in. Millions of the urban poor have been displaced. They are living on the brink of survival. The economy has taken a battering.
Production has shrunk, demand has collapsed, exports have plummeted, significant sectors like hospitality and tourism are still closed, unemployment has spiralled to unbelievable heights, supply lines are destroyed, and millions of commercial establishments are close to closure. India is in the grip of a crisis like never before.
In such a grave situation, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s proclivity to carry on with politics as usual, as though everything is still hunky-dory, strikes an extremely jarring note.
Union home minister and former party president Amit Shah held a “virtual” rally in Bihar, which is the next state that will go for Assembly polls. As per reports, some 72,000 LED TVs were installed all over Bihar to facilitate his outreach.
This at a time when millions of the urban poor have returned to Bihar in abject conditions, the state is woefully short of funds, its infrastructure to cope with this influx is pathetically inadequate, the disease is spreading, and misery abounds.
One would have thought that the home minister of the country would eschew partisan politics for the moment and focus on what can be done to ameliorate the situation for those most in need.
The same abrasive approach is seen for West Bengal too. It is true that the state will have elections in April next year, soon after Bihar, and the BJP, as the principal Opposition party, wants desperately to win.
But there is almost a year until then, and there will be a right time for the political slugfest to commence. But the BJP is a party in a political hurry.
It does not wish to postpone its electoral appetite. It does not want to defer its desire to trounce its political opponents immediately.
Irrespective of the magnitude of the crisis gripping the country, it wants to attack chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her ruling Trinamul Congress party, and blow the bugle for electoral battle.
If media reports are to be believed, the same inclination for acrimonious politics, and the same obliviousness to national concerns beyond transient politics, can be seen in the shenanigans going on for the Rajya Sabha elections in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
What kind of priorities does this behaviour display?
A great many people believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should, at this critical juncture, take the lead to build a national consensus, set aside partisan politics, make an appeal for unity and harmony, over-arch political differences, and emerge as a catalytic icon for an India robustly united in fighting the worst crisis the country has faced since 1947.
Is this too much to expect? Must we always, in the face of a crisis, squabble among ourselves?
If the ruling party were to take the lead, the Opposition would, I believe, follow. In any case, there is no Opposition worth its name at a pan-India level; individual non-BJP CMs in states are so besieged by the pandemic, that they have little time or energy accept to somehow keep their head above the rising water line of the virus.
In fact, if anything, the largest Opposition party, the Congress, has been remarkably reticent. J
ust imagine, if the Congress was in power, and the BJP were in Opposition, how stridently the BJP would have agitated against the suffering and tribulations of the millions of the urban poor trekking their way home over hundreds of miles, without money, food, or even safe drinking water. Sometimes, our ancient wisdom best illustrates what is happening today.
In the Panchatantra, there is the story of a snake, carrying a frog in its mouth. Even in the face of this imminent threat, the frog seeks to catch a nearby insect. The snake is the terrible threat posed by the coronavirus. The frog is, metaphorically, our nation trying to set itself free.
And the attempt of the frog to catch the insect is akin to the attempt by political parties in India to play acrimonious electoral politics even now, in spite of the imminent larger threat that looms ahead. Apart from the obsession with electoral gain, there is another game afoot.
The Central government appears to be selectively and relentlessly targeting states with non-BJP governments for the manner in which they are handling the pandemic.
With its “friendly” media in tow, a great deal of misguided energy is being expended in extracting political dividends from the travails faced by such states.
Constructive criticism, from any quarter, is always welcome, but this game of one-upmanship makes a mockery of the need for national unity to face a disease that recognises no difference between the political colour of governments at the state or the centre.
It is now time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rise above the political fray and make an open appeal for national unity to fight the crisis that the nation is facing. There will be a time when the cacophony of democratic politics can resume.
Until then, both the BJP and the Opposition parties must call a truce and stop pretending that it is business as usual. India must rise unitedly to face the unprecedented challenge that the pandemic poses.
The writer is an author, diplomat and is in politics...