For the first time since the Modi Government came to power in 2014, senior Union ministers and top functionaries in the BJP and the RSS are on the defensive and unsure of how — or even what — to communicate to the people as the second Covid curve rages across the country.
Yet, there is a consensus that “fear has touched each family” and people need to see more “effort and achievement” to feel some “reassurance”. To that effect, there are also voices in the party and the RSS speculating on the need for the government to “revamp its team” so that it can deliver.
A fortnight after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation, the Centre’s response trails way behind the curve, which shows few signs of a let-up. On the most pressing issue of oxygen, a series of High Courts and, the Supreme Court, too, have turned the screws on the Centre.
The Sunday Express spoke to some Union ministers and several functionaries in the BJP and the RSS to get a sense of how the national anxiety is echoing in the corridors of power.
The most common refrain is that this was “sudden” and “unexpected.” When told that the uptick began in Mumbai mid-February and all warning signs — from need of oxygen to the possible impact of the variant — came early and the Government had time to prepare, the chorus is that “no one anticipated such an intense wave.”
Few are willing to discuss how the Centre misread the situation and the BJP passed a resolution praising the Prime Minister for success in the fight against Covid. Indeed, most of them are still hesitant to find fault with the leadership and rally behind the Prime Minister’s not-so visible efforts to manage the situation.
Asked about the conspicuous silence at the top as compared to daily and regular press briefings by some Chief Ministers, a Union Minister said: “I am with you on the the need for a voice of reassurance (from the government). The entire situation is challenging”.
“This wave has taken all of us by surprise,” said another Union Minister. “All of a sudden, the case count went through the roof,” said a third Minister admitting, that today, “there’s a fear in almost every family across the country.”
“Kai bar unapekshit cheezein ho jati hain. In these situations, every plan falls short,” said a fourth Minister. “Thoda hatasha ka bhaav hai….thodi dhilayi hui….lekin janta ne bhi dhilai ki; they didn’t pay heed to persistent appeals to mask and maintain social distancing after the first wave,” he said.
However, he added there was an “organised attempt to defame the Central government,” by the same “suspects who attack us on every policy.”
Said a top official: “Last year, they said the lockdown was the worst thing to have happened and now they say you need to lock down. They said put vaccines in the open market, give it to the private sector, now they say vaccines should be free.”
However, another Minister suggested that more effort was needed by the government to take the public into confidence. “There will always be people against us but there are fair-minded people as well. Fear and loss of a loved one can anger anybody, this isn’t the time to see all criticism as motivated. The people need to be taken into confidence,” he said.
But a senior Minister said that daily communication with the public – at a senior political level – may not be that effective. “Bolne se chidh machegi public mein abhi. Logon ko result chahiye, bhashan nahi (Speeches will anger people; they want results, not a lecture),” said the minister.
The Ministers may be guarded but some leaders in the BJP and RSS are more forthcoming.
“The Government is making efforts but is falling short in articulating a convincing political message,” said a BJP national office-bearer adding, “The government might need to revamp its team to deliver results”.
The BJP functionary, however, evaded queries on where does the buck stop. A senior RSS leader blamed “centralised decision-making” for not anticipating and now scrambling to catch up with the second wave. “There is over-centralisation in the PMO and a deep problem in the quality of feedback the PM gets. The Principal Scientific Advisor admits he couldn’t see the second wave and then says a third wave will come.”
The question of accountability is also being raised. “Is there any accountability mechanism for people surrounding the leadership…I suspect there is a tendency to please Number One (Prime Minister), so no is flagging negative situations to him on time,” said the RSS leader.
The defeat in West Bengal has also rubbed this in. “Clearly, no one, between April 4 and 15 when the curve exploded, sensed that the Covid curve was rising so steeply and rallies in Bengal was not the answer. We misread both the political mood in the state and the public health challenge.”
A BJP Chief Minister, however, said that the central leadership is working hard to “salvage” the situation. “The PM warned CMs in mid-March, this is an unexpected situation and we are working hard. Whenever I have made a call or wanted to speak to the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Home Minister, Railway Minister, the response has been prompt,” said the CM.
Asked about people’s resentment at the sense of helplessness, a Union Minister said: “People understand that oxygen and vaccines cannot be arranged overnight in these dire situations.”
“During the UPA, people were angry at CWG, 2G and coal scams. The situation is not like that, people know the situation seems uncontrolled for the moment but they also understand the limitations in times of such surge. They trust the Prime Minister to bring the situation under control,” said a Union Minister.
But with cities still reeling and the wave spreading to rural areas, that trust will be further challenged. The summer of 2021 remains long and harsh.