Amid image management, Opposition letter will help Centre focus better on tackling COVID-19
The lack of infrastructure and space to cremate or bury the dead and the sight of numerous bodies floating down the Ganges in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are bringing home to us new horrors.
With the Central government still scrambling to contain the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it must open itself up to public scrutiny, not only because that is how democracies function, but also because a continued dialogue with the public and its representatives will help it put better systems in place.
It is in a spirit of constructive engagement, thus, that everyone should view the letter written to the government by practically the combined Opposition. It is the job of the parties that occupy the formal interlocutory space to make suggestions, seek to engage the government and keep it under pressure.
The government has so far not responded to advice or questioning addressed to it in an individual capacity. Indeed the responses, issued by proxy, have been hostile. Thus, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan’s response to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s letter to his successor was caustic and belittling.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s letter to Modi, written on 22 April, too, was not well received, whilst Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president JP Nadda launched a diatribe against the Congress in a letter to her on 11 May. Given that the default responses of the government to either criticism or advice appear to be denial and attack, it is imperative that the opposition keeps up the pressure, to remind the government of its responsibilities.
The letter from the Opposition is, thus, a welcome and concerted attempt to get the government to respond, while also making more coordinated and credible attempts to come to grips with a pandemic that has spiralled out of control and shows little sign of playing itself out in the immediate future. The country knows about the enormity of the catastrophe because it has ravaged so many homes, so many people. Not much more need be said at the current juncture.
The opposition leaders who have signed the letter have made a number of pleas, which are not exactly outside the domain of what has now become common sense. Thus: Central vaccine procurement on a larger scale to ensure universal free inoculation, an idea mooted by Modi himself at the end of last October; compulsory licensing to expand domestic vaccine production and help achieve that goal; using funds earmarked for the Central Vista project and held in the PM CARES fund to procure more medical supplies, especially oxygen and vaccines; financial assistance and free food grain for the jobless; and the repeal of the three controversial farm laws so that agitating farmers can disperse.
The proposals are obvious, with exceptions. It is difficult to see the Centre back down on either the farm laws or the Central Vista project, having invested substantial political capital in both. But it is precisely because the central government has taken a hard stand on arriving at some kind of consensus to help push forward at greater speed that the opposition must not let up.
And it’s not just the opposition parties. The pandemic is a literally unprecedented threat to the lives and well-being of the citizenry. The public must also keep raising its voice, demanding greater accountability and more explicable and transparent action on bringing the situation under control.
There is a sense, voiced across a spectrum of public opinion in the country, that the government is more concerned with trying to manage perceptions than dealing with the crisis. An initiative launched by the BJP, the Centre and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, under the circumstances infelicitously being called a ‘positivity campaign’, is a case in point.
It is clear that there are practically no positives to take from the current situation, given that no one seems to be sure when the ‘second wave’ of the pandemic will peak, forget start being rolled back – we are still in the territory of 350,000-odd infections and 4,000-odd deaths a day. We also know that wide swathes of rural hinterlands, which are barely serviced by the available health infrastructure, are now being swept away by the pandemic.
In this situation, it has to be all shoulders to the wheel. The government and the opposition must work together as must as the Centre and the states. For this to happen, it is ultimately up to the government to bring everyone on board. The public must be kept fully in the loop, because downplaying the crisis will not incentivise citizens to exercise the utmost caution.
The letter from the 12 opposition parties will help keep the focus on the scale of the problem and, one hopes, trigger a response from the Centre. That will also make people vigilant – ‘positivity’ will breed unwanted complacence.
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