Defining Moments: 2021
2021 will be best remembered for two events. The deadly impact of the coronavirus and the long-drawn-out, disruptive farmers’ agitation.
The second wave of Covid-19 in the middle of the year was one of the worst tragedies to befall India in the last 50 years. There were desperate cries for help in securing hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and vital medicines Each day brought fresh bad news, friends struggling to survive or slipping away. An unnaturally high number of celebrity deaths indicated that this was a virus which did not discriminate between the powerful and the downtrodden.
Some of those in charge of controlling the pandemic were found wanting. We faced a severe shortfall of vaccines for months. The Election Commission did not prohibit holding mass rallies in poll-bound states. Politicians set the worst example by encouraging super-spreader events. With Omicron cases on the rise, one hopes some lessons have been learnt from last year’s mistakes.
Last year’s other big story was the farmers’ agitation, for the withdrawal of the Modi government’s three new farm laws. The government insisted the new legislation was designed to empower small farmers to sell and purchase grain outside mandis and across states. Farmers apprehended that big private companies would squeeze them out and that the laws could end the MSP-based procurement system. The well-organised farmers came ready for the long haul and camped for months on the highway with their tractors holding up traffic. On Republic Day, there was a near riot outside Red Fort.
In Lakhimpur Kheri, UP, a convoy of cars, including one owned by a BJP minister, mowed down four farmers and the agitators retaliated, killing two BJP leaders and the driver of one of the vehicles. For a year the government refused to relent despite roadblocks, violence, rallies and hostile public opinion both in India and abroad. Finally, in November, the normally unyielding Modi backtracked and agreed to withdraw the three contentious laws.
On the political front, the year was defined by four events: Mamata Banerjee’s decisive victory in the West Bengal Assembly elections; the further weakening of the Congress still controlled by the Gandhis, who preside over a rapidly declining empire; the emergence, under the wily guidance of Prashant Kishor, of other claimants to the Opposition leadership mantle; and finally the growing uncertainty in the BJP as to who occupies the number two slot in the party.
After its spectacular success in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal, the BJP entered the Assembly election campaign with cocky confidence and all guns blazing. But despite its high-power campaign, led by Prime Minister Modi, the BJP juggernaut met a roadblock in the feisty Banerjee. The ruling party at the Centre miscalculated in not projecting state-level leaders. Its polarising campaign, crude barbs at Mamata and the mishandling of the second Covid wave did not go down well with the voter. Modi’s jibe of “Didi o Didi” was perceived as undignified.
Emboldened by her success in Bengal, Banerjee now dreams of emerging as an alternative opposition leader to the Gandhis at the national level. She has been wooing disgruntled Congress leaders in other parts of the country. AAP and the NCP are also cutting into the Congress vote share.
Many in the Opposition, and even within the Congress, apprehend that the defacto Congress president, who still shies away from a formal coronation, is not the best candidate to take on a campaign-savvy Modi in 2024. Rahul Gandhi’s poor choices, frequent trips abroad and failure as commander-in-chief are reflected in the party’s diminishing prospects in once sure-fire winning states such as Punjab.
Who’s No. 2?
The BJP has also seen its fortunes slide this year, though not as precipitously as the Congress. In 2019, after its spectacular win in the general elections, the Narendra Modi–Amit Shah team appeared invincible. Shah, as an all-powerful Home Minister who tabled the resolution in Parliament to revoke Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and continued to have a major say in the BJP even after giving up the president’s post, was the undoubted No.2. But in 2021 the hierarchy is no longer so clear-cut. With all eyes on the UP Assembly polls, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has emerged as a rising star.