Fifth Column: We need an opposition party, writes Tavleen Singh

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June 27, 2021 6:00 AM

Last week came the first signs that the Dynasty has understood this. Rahul Gandhi popped up to declare that a third Covid wave was ‘definitely coming’, and said the Congress party had produced a ‘white paper’ that contained advice for the government.

Sonia Gandhi reportedly summoned senior officials of the party she has led for decades and told them it was ‘absolutely essential that our party play an active role’. (File image)Sonia Gandhi reportedly summoned senior officials of the party she has led for decades and told them it was ‘absolutely essential that our party play an active role’. (File image)

One reason why the Prime Minister has got away with criminal mismanagement of the pandemic is because he has not been held to account by the only political party powerful enough at the national level to do this. Last week came the first signs that the Dynasty has understood this. Rahul Gandhi popped up to declare that a third Covid wave was ‘definitely coming’, and said the Congress party had produced a ‘white paper’ that contained advice for the government. The advice was banal and basic and will probably be ignored. Then, came stirrings of action in 10 Janpath. Sonia Gandhi reportedly summoned senior officials of the party she has led for decades and told them it was ‘absolutely essential that our party play an active role’. She said party workers should reach out to 30 million households in the next month as part of the party’s Covid campaign.

The Congress party has been dormant and invisible for months, so nobody knew they had a Covid campaign. In the worst days of the second wave ordinary citizens helped find oxygen cylinders and arrange beds in hospitals. Ordinary citizens helped with cremations and ordinary citizens raised funds for those who could not afford their medical bills. Where was the Congress party? Is it in terminal decline? This is a good week to ask because it was on June 25, 1975, that Mrs Gandhi declared the Emergency and it was in the months that followed that the party of our freedom movement began its reincarnation as a family firm.

Mrs Gandhi used the suspension of democracy and press censorship to make Sanjay Gandhi her heir. I was a junior reporter in The Statesman and remember well those orders that came from the Press Information Bureau to ‘give prominence’ to pictures of Sanjay and to the speeches he made. Newspapers that showed disobedience or defiance were punished. So, nobody dared write that Mrs Gandhi’s son was being allowed to govern India and was more important than her Cabinet or Parliament. It was in the Emergency that the Dynasty that is now synonymous with the Congress party was born. Today political pundits predict that without the Dynasty the party will fall to pieces. The problem is that the Dynasty has failed to lead the party to victory in two general elections and now seems completely useless in opposition.

At no time in Narendra Modi’s long and dazzling political career has he looked as bad as he does today. The pandemic exposed his limitations in a way that nothing else has. From day one he made mistakes and misjudged the severity of the pandemic. The mistakes continue. Last Monday when responsibility for vaccinations reverted to the Government of India, there was a dramatic surge in the number of doses given that day. His ministers and devotees took to social media to praise his ‘visionary leadership.’ In less than twenty-four hours it became clear that BJP chief ministers had hoarded vaccines to enable the single day miracle. The next day when numbers dropped to nearly half, experts pointed out the urgent need to vaccinate at least one crore people every day to achieve herd immunity by December. There must be no more grandstanding. This is a pandemic not an international competition.

If serious mistakes had not been made, we would today not have been in a situation in which Covid creeps silently and stealthily into the very heart of rural India. The response of BJP chief ministers is to continue lying about rural deaths and the spread of the disease in the hope that no more bodies start emerging from those shallow graves along the Ganga as the monsoon gets stronger. There is no question that Modi’s personal image has been sullied in the eyes of the world and yet polls indicate that his ratings remain high. The reason for this is that our only other national party remains in the doldrums.

Last week we saw a small, motley group of Modi’s opponents come together in the house of Sharad Pawar. Since nobody from the Congress party was present, rumours of a ‘third front’ immediately began to swirl until they were firmly squashed by Mr Pawar’s new best friend Prashant Kishor. He said correctly that no third front would be able to defeat Modi in 2024. Any talk of Opposition unity is in any case meaningless without a major national party becoming its pivot. So, the whole sad truth is that the Congress party is more relevant today than it has been for a long while, and yet it seems not to know its role.

In the past two years there has been a great deal of opposition to Modi’s ‘visionary leadership’. But, it has come from ordinary citizens. It is they who took to the streets to protest against an amendment to the citizenship law that was clearly discriminatory. It was ordinary farmers who took to the streets to protest against the farm laws. They have been camping on the borders of Delhi for over six months. In all this time if the Congress party has had anything to say they have said it so quietly that it has made no difference. So, it should surprise nobody that recent polls indicate that there has been almost no drop in Modi’s popularity and that he is still seen by most Indians as the best man to lead India.

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