Should political parties in India play politics over COVID-19?

Kalyani Shankar

That is what is happening on vaccines’ delivery in the past few days when a dangerous second wave is endangering to attack the country.  It has resulted in a fight for more doses of vaccines between the opposition-ruled states and the Modi government. The former allege that they were getting stepmotherly treatment.

When Covid hit the country in 2020 January, prime minister Narendra Modi took the state chief ministers and even the public on board about how to retrieve the situation. He held several meetings with the latter and consulted and guided the states with the promise of all help.  They worked in tandem. The pandemic also focused on the national weaknesses, deteriorating health care, lack of hospitals and facilities, inadequate social protection, need for more funds for the health sector, etc. Both Modi and the chief ministers needed each other and leaned on each other to tackle the enormous medical emergency. Both were looking at an electorate and their position at the end of their terms. Therefore, it became an individual race for each one of them. However, whether the government mishandled the lockdown last year came into question. Still, the lockdown itself did not turn into a political issue. Even the opposition parties could not go beyond a line to criticize the Modi government.

Now, after one year, with the pandemic running into its second wave, politics seems to have taken over. As a result, it has brought federalism into some strain. When things go wrong, it is politics that comes to the fore. Now, there are vaccine shortages and miscalculations on the part of the authorities. The second wave hits about seven states more states might be affected.  That is where the present crisis is moving. If something goes wrong, the Centre blames the states, and the states blame the Central for not delivering the required doses of the vaccines.  The demand also has gone up. The initial response from the public was one of ‘wait and see, ‘but now there is a clamour for vaccines.

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While the BJP touts Modi as the saviour of people in handling the pandemic, the opposition chief ministers are now claiming they are getting stepmotherly treatment. Opposition parties have realized that Covid has become a long-time game and they cannot simply sit and not play politics. So, everything from approval to the vaccine to its allocation to states became politicized. A former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav declared he would not take the BJP vaccine.  The others questioned the efficacy of the vaccines, and even the provision of vaccines became an election promise in poll-bound states.

It is a time of reckoning for the governments and the opposition parties, particularly the Congress.  The Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, addressing the Congress chief ministers, recently asked them to prioritize Covid Containment. She also charged the Modi government of ‘mismanaging the pandemic situation by allowing the export of vaccines resulting in vaccine shortage. She said, “As the principal opposition party, it is our responsibility to raise issues and push the government to move away from PR tactics and act in the interest of the people.”

The current wave of infections will test the country’s health infrastructure and its improvements since last year. Maharashtra was the worst hit during both the significant surges of Covid-19 cases. As of April 8, 2021, 24 million doses were in stock and another 19 million in the pipeline. Some 3-3.5 million doses have been on an everyday basis, according to data made available by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

The second wave came when people started celebrating the success in tackling the first wave effectively. The period also coincided with assembly elections in five states and mega religious events like the Kumbh. On March 7, 2021, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan even declared that ‘we are in the endgame of the Covid-19 pandemic’.

However, this is not the time to question who and why of the mishandling, if there is any. The real question is what the central and state governments have done during the pandemic and what they can do to contain the second wave. The opposition must understand that it should be more vigilant, active, public-spirited, and courageous. The opposition should play their role as an institutional watchdog and develop credible policy alternatives instead of blaming the government. The Modi government should transparently distribute the vaccines and address the concerns of the opposition chief ministers. All sides should realize that this is an unprecedented crisis, and playing politics will not help.

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