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Will the electorate hold the BJP government responsible for the suffering during the pandemic?

Will the catastrophic misery inflicted by Covid’s second wave hurt the BJP’s electoral fortunes? This is a significant political question for India, but governments and observers worldwide are also curious. If America was the capital of Covid-19 suffering in 2020, India became one in 2021. The pandemic undoubtedly contributed to Donald Trump’s election defeat. Will it electorally hurt Narendra Modi, too?

A big difference, of course, is that US elections took place within months of the Covid-19 outbreak. Modi has three more years to go before the next national elections. That Modi’s standing has been dented is beyond doubt, but we also know that democratic politics permits narrative-shifting possibilities. Today’s narrative may not last.

One only has to recall how after the BJP’s three state election defeats in December 2018, a new political issue arose after the Pulwama attack by February 2019. The CSDS-Lokniti data shows that national security became one of the greatest determinants of Modi’s victory by May 2019. The political narrative was transformed, and a massive election victory followed. The BJP might in any case have won, but the Pulwama-Balakot episodes made the victory so much more possible.

India’s current preoccupation with Covid is understandable. The nation has seen nothing comparable since the Bengal famine of 1943, which was before Independence. But much can happen in the coming three years. Any analysis of the impact of Covid on the 2024 elections will be far too speculative.

But one can legitimately focus on something coming up soon. State elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) are due by March 2022. During 1998-2014, UP had lost its customary national significance, for those in power in Delhi did not depend critically on UP. But since 2014, UP has become the foundation of Modi’s national power. Though originally from Gujarat, Modi has picked Varanasi as his election fortress. Out of UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP won 71 in 2014, 62 in 2019. And in the 2017 state elections, reversing a long trend, the BJP swept aside every major party in an unprecedented victory. Without UP, Modi simply would not have had a parliamentary majority in 2014 and 2019. UP is central to his political fortunes.

Will Covid influence the UP election results? Perhaps no other state has suffered as much. The misery included the horror of a large number of dead bodies in the Ganga. In north India, post-crematory ashes are customarily dispersed in the Ganga. Even a thoroughly non-religious Nehru wrote that, after his death, his ashes should be scattered at the Ganga-Yamuna confluence in Allahabad.

But dead bodies are another matter altogether. Dead bodies are not generally thrown into the river, or buried in the river sands. Unless forced, few would like to treat their deceased spouse, children and parents so disgracefully. The emotional toll of such acts can be enormous. Suryakant Tripathi Nirala, the great Hindi poet, described watching thousands of bodies floating in the Ganga in 1918, when the Spanish flu hit India. Back then, the colonial government was not obliged to seek the mandate of the masses. But the BJP in UP has to return to the voters in 2022.

Here, then, is the key question: How will the suffering be interpreted by the masses? Who will be held responsible for it? The answer to this question will heavily determine what happens in UP next year.

Analysts have long noted that human suffering is especially susceptible to religious reasoning. The “extraordinary survival” of religions over the centuries, writes Benedict Anderson, “attests to their … response to the overwhelming burden of human suffering — disease, mutilation, grief, age, and death. Why was I born blind? Why is my best friend paralysed? Why is my daughter retarded? The religions attempted to explain. The great weakness of all evolutionary/progressive thought … is that such questions are answered with impatient silence.”

Invocation of fate is also a roughly similar idea. Vidhi ka Vidhan, simply translated as destiny, is a popular adage. And in the words of the poet Sahir Ludhianvi, “aadmi ko chaahiye waqt se dar kar rahe, kaun jaane kis ghadi waqt ka badle mizaaj” (Human beings should be afraid of fate. Who knows when fate will alter its benign gaze?). Such mass beliefs have a long foundation.

Will the masses in UP attribute their grief and distress to fate, destiny, God’s will? Or will they hold the government responsible? Without a proper survey, it is hard to be confident about how grief will be interpreted. In all probability, multiple interpretations will exist. Some may not blame the government, but others will. One reason for that is simply the multiplicity of meanings normally assigned to different kinds of suffering.

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If my parents die after the doctors did their best to save them, it is not the same as my parents dying because something as elemental as oxygen was not available, or hospital beds were incomprehensibly scarce. Why could the government, with all its resources, not provide oxygen, or build make-shift hospitals? Similarly, the agony of cremating one’s child is very different from the torture of not getting enough firewood to cremate her and being forced to float her body in the Ganges.

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Even religiously rooted human beings don’t consider all kinds of grief to be equal. Some are more easily linked to fate, others are inflicted by those in power — by their policies, or by their sheer absence in times of need. Whether or not a democratic government can bring joy and happiness, one of its key responsibilities is to prevent mass suffering, or alleviate its severity. At a time of deep collective agony and pain, a democratic government’s virtual disappearance — or its appearance only to punish citizens, journalists and health professionals doing their job — borders on brutish incomprehensibility.

It is the last set of meanings that the BJP should be afraid of. In the standard non-religious discourse, it is simply called governance failure. Not vidhi ka vidhan, but sarkar ka vidhan. Not fate, but the government’s acts of omission and commission. If that is what a significant proportion of UP’s electorate has come to believe, can BJP rulers in Delhi and Lucknow alter that narrative? As of now, we don’t know the answer to either question.

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This column first appeared in the print edition on June 24, 2021 under the title ‘Politics after pandemic’. Varshney is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University. Ahuja is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara

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