An opportunity lost

Anil Anand

Any emergency or an extreme situation brings best out of the system in some sense of the term, as even the forces with divergent views and ideologies tend to close ranks for a united fight to tide over the crisis. This positive trait has a great relevance in a democratic polity such as India. There have been instances in the last seven decades when national interest reigned supreme over everything else as and when the need arose. The most recent example of this unity in diversity was the Kargil war with the sole aim of overcoming the challenge by putting up a united face against the enemy.
Currently, the nation is in throes of COVID-19 pandemic which has engulfed the entire country. Heart rending scenes of hapless citizens begging for basic medical facilities such as a gasp of Oxygen or a bed in the hospital, and even worst to get a slot for cremating/burying their nears and dears, warranted that the political system should have joined hands and strategise to reduce people’s sufferings or at least save their energies of gnawing at each other. Alas, that was not to be.
This was the time when the national polity should have redeemed its tarnished image by putting an act together. This was the time when priority should have been to alleviate people’s suffering rather than focusing on electoral politics and political score setting. Leave alone postponing the five state assembly elections, the existing system even refused to club last three of the eight-phased polling in West Bengal as a precaution against the fast spreading deadly virus.
What if the political parties had come together in the interest of the well-being and safety of the people to work for postponement of the elections and instead focus all energies to counter the pandemic? On the face of it, it is certainly not an impossible or difficult proposal and perfectly doable provided the political parties looked beyond their electoral interest.
At a time when the body polity is vertically and horizontally divided as never before, the COVID-19 pandemic had brought a golden opportunity for the political parties to redeem themselves by joining hands to put up a united fight against this health hazard. Alas, the opportunity has been lost.
Under such circumstances, as has been the past precedents, it is always the ruling party at the Centre which has to reach out to the political spectrum of the country with its different ideological colours, and carry everyone along. This is more relevant when there is a strong-majority government at the Centre formed by an equally strong political party ostensibly the biggest in the world.
With such a strong ruling system in the country, it was rather easier for such a government/polity to work for and achieve political unity in pursuit to fight a challenge such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, to have a strong and decisive government at the Centre with an organisationally strong political party backing it is certainly a big positive. It is also a positive that a strong leader heads such a government and is imbued with confidence to tide over any situation. But the positivity sometimes weakens if the feeling of strength is overridden by a sense of contempt towards other political parties for personal or ideological reasons.
A strong leader approaching the weak-opposition, as is the current scene, in order to carry them along in the mission fight against the pandemic, he or she would do so from the position of strength. And such an approach would further strengthen the already strong leader and raise his or her profile.
COVID-19 like pandemic situation, is not a time to play party politics or display perennial ideological hatred towards a particular party or a leader or set of leaders. This is so because at risk is the survival and lives of the very people who vote a political party to power.
This is certainly not the time for blame-game when the country is in the midst of a serious life threatening crisis but this is certainly time for stock-taking in the hope that saner sense prevails and redeeming efforts are made. A phone call from the Prime Minister to national and regional political leaders has the potential to change the entire scenario and create a positive atmosphere where no time was wasted on mutual criticism. This has happened many a times in the past but unfortunately the spirit went missing as we were confronting Corona that has already cost the nation many valuable lives, and many others are struggling to survive.
Another positive in the pandemic like situation is that it brings the country face to face with the actual ground realities particularly in terms of capabilities to fight the challenge. COVID-19 pandemic has glaringly brought out the shortcomings of the system despite tall claims by both leaders at the Centre and at state levels. Accepting harsh realities and not hiding behind the smoke screen is the way forward.
Are we ready to accept the reality and candid enough to admit failures with a resolve to tide over the shortcomings in future? It would be in the interest of the country and its future generations to do so as rectification follows acceptance of failures and shortcomings. Unfortunately, feeling of remorse or accepting failures, is a scarce commodity in the political system particularly in the current scheme of things.
As it is the health infrastructure of the country- irrespective of the debate on health being a Centre or the state subject- has never been in good health. The COVID-19 pandemic has further burst it at the seams, exposing both the Centre and state governments to great measures. The glaring examples of this deficient system are the states of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chattisgarh and the Union Territory of Delhi. This is not to say that other states have excelled on health care front particularly during such emergencies.
It is the result of a divided polity for obvious reasons that apart from the political parties even the governments run by them in the states and the Centre are repeatedly found sniping at each other rather than becoming fellow-travellers. It is more appalling that Union Ministers rather than acting as an umbrella to the state governments and other political parties, lose no opportunity to criticise them in turn making it a Centre versus the states fight rather than making it a fight against the pandemic.
A rather jarring note in this connection was Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan’s letter rebutting the suggestions made by former Prime Minister and veteran Congress leader, Dr Manmohan Singh in a letter written to Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The language and the spirit of the rebuttal are an index of the current political culture.