A TIME OF CHURN: HEALTH CRISIS TO FARM CHAOS
2021 will be remembered for the second wave of the pandemic and the harsh lessons it held for the government, politicians and citizens. The year of the once-in-a-generation health crisis also saw a strong political fightback from regional parties, and a farm agitation that forced a retreat...
The year began with guarded hope. On the first day of 2021, the government cleared two vaccines for wide use, paving the way for the world’s largest inoculation drive. Infections were falling, the administration seemed to be in control of mitigation efforts, and the economy was looking up.
The year ended with guarded hope. The Omicron variant of the coronavirus hit India and nudged cases upwards, but initial trends suggested the mutant doesn’t cause very severe disease or mass hospitalisation. Nearly two-thirds of the country is fully vaccinated, nearly 90% has got one shot, and most governments have oxygen supplies, hospital beds and ventilators ready. There is fear, yes, but also optimism that the country will get through the Omicron wave.
In the months in between, though, the country lurched from normalcy to despair repeatedly as the brutal Delta wave of infections exposed the limitations of India’s political class and governmental machinery, cemented the importance of the higher judiciary in everyday life, and underlined the pitfalls of prioritising political compulsions over health concerns.
There were some surprises, too. Unlike 2020, political developments were not intimately tied to the pandemic; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continued to be the primary pole in Indian politics but its expansive ambitions were checked by a cohort of feisty regional leaders. The most significant concession from the government was won not at the polling booth but from street-side protest sites.
But largely, 2021 will be remembered for the second wave of the pandemic and the harsh lessons it had for the government, politicians and citizens. If 2020 was the year of the government, which determined when you could go out, which places you could visit and how you could travel, 2021 showed the limits of that power when faced with a once-in-a-generation health crisis.
As cases and deaths rose steadily in March and April, depleting medicine stocks, oxygen supplies and hospital beds, ordinary people increasingly found that traditional support structures had collapsed. The poor and the underprivileged were, of course, the worst hit, but even middle-class folks in big cities found that phone calls to important people were not enough to assure them of quality medical help. The local politician receded from view and even senior leaders and ministers struggled to secure hospital beds or oxygen cylinders. Volunteer groups tried to fill the vacuum but it was clear that the government and political class were overwhelmed and found wanting.
The impact of this was devastating in the short term, with reports indicating that several people died in their homes without adequate medical care and others struggled to even give a decent burial to their loved ones. But it is yet to be seen if this tragedy also engendered a fundamental breakdown in the trust compact between the citizen and the politician in the long term, or whether it was perceived simply as an incumbency issue that can be resolved by voting for another politician in the next election.
This breakdown of trust between ordinary citizens and the political class was also manifested in the expanded role of the judiciary. When hospitals ran out of oxygen at midnight, they approached the courts. When deaths due to oxygen ravaged major hospitals, patients approached the courts. When people were outraged by election rallies or religious events in the middle of the second wave, they approached the courts. When the vaccination efforts were fumbling due to a complex web of rules and procurement problems, the courts stepped in.
The story of governance in 2021, therefore, is one that must include its legal fraternity, for courts shaped the country’s pandemic response not only by its orders, but also by its criticism, advice and statements on critical policy initiatives. Be it oxygen-related deaths, inoculation efforts or Covid compensation, the court’s stamp of authority was visible everywhere.
To be sure, this is not to say that politics receded to the background this year. Through most of the second wave, political parties fought a fierce election battle in West Bengal, considered by many as the BJP’s final frontier. Though polls were also on in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Puducherry, attention was focused on Bengal as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) checked the BJP from breaching its citadel. The TMC’s resounding victory was a reality check to the BJP and a reminder to Opposition parties that while Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hold on national politics was unmatched, regional parties with strong sub-national agendas and rooted leaders could hold their own against the country’s ruling party. Though the BJP retained power in Assam, the victories of Banerjee, MK Stalin in Tamil Nadu and Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala energised the Opposition. Most of the subsequent months saw a realignment of Opposition politics with Banerjee seeking to chip away at the Congress’s strengths and position herself as a national leader.
But the most significant political moment this year didn’t involve the organised Opposition at all. In a surprise speech in November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the repeal of three controversial farm laws that his government had enacted last year, and vigorously defended for 12 months. The withdrawal of the laws — the government still maintains they were key for agri reforms, and the farmers contend they would have led to corporate monopolies — was a huge, if unexpected, moment of triumph for thousands of farmers who were camped outside the Capital since late last year. This government is not known to walk back its policies. Its only notable concessions remain the 2015 land acquisition bill and a controversial policy for promotion of SC/STs.
The successful stir by an organised, cohesive group of farmers brought back memories of the 1980s, the heyday of farm politics, and reminded people that despite lopsided power structures, citizen protest was still a potent way to grab the bully pulpit, and therefore, the attention of the government.