Make America ‘Breathe’ Again

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
James Baldwin in Newyorker, November, 1962

Between Minneapolis police officer and his three colleagues who backed him, Derrick Chavuin, and Afro-American citizen George Floyd, it took just about 8 minutes and 46 seconds, to resurrect the jackboot of White supremacy and Ku Klux Klan racism yet again, in full public view, as a public spectacle for the whole world to see.

Pinned down by his knee on the ground for the alleged crime of using a $20 counterfeit currency note (like another White man who was let out easily and predictably), the knee is yet again becoming a bad faith/good faith metaphor in the United States of America, certainly not the ‘greatest nation’ in the world, as it routinely claims. Indeed, the cops in Miami, one knee bent, have proved the visual and symbolic value of this gesture – followed by protestors hugging them warmly, some with tears in their eyes.

Remember the infamous ‘Wounded Knee Massacre’, and all the other massacres of  the indigenous native tribes of the Americas by the ‘White migrants, immigrants and outsiders’ to capture their land, bodies, natural resources, and brutally ravage their souls, civilizations, memories, folk traditions and history? The massacre on December 29, 1890 and later, of more than 300 Lakota Indians by the US Army in the Wounded Knee Creek somewhere in the southwest South Dakota has been movingly recorded in that heart-breaking book: Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.

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Indeed, not only Black Lives Matter, the lives of the original inhabitants of these vast lands, killed by small pox, starvation, brute atrocities and genocides, too matters, though most of the last remaining native tribes, malnourished, ghettoised and degraded, have been pushed into invisible  forests and no-man’s land as third class citizens, outside the gaze of the so-called ‘greatest nation’.

George Floyd kept saying something which too has become a bad faith metaphor for the whole American society, White and Black, immigrants, Latinos, dissenters, intellectuals, journalists, homemakers, professional and students. Like that famous painting called ‘Scream’ by Edvard Munch, his last words reflect the suffocating reality of oppression which the largely marginanlised Afro-American communities, among other oppressed groups, face in affluent America.

“I can’t breathe,” he said. “Please help.” As he was pinned down, finally, calling out for his mother in his last moments. Murdered on the street by a White cop for no rhyme or reason, as is mostly the case with Black people in scores of similar situations all across the White supremacist landscape of this advanced capitalist democracy.

In recent times, this sinister and open legacy of murder has continued unabated, especially under the leadership of President Donald Trump. Some weeks earlier, Ahmoud Arbery was killed by White vigilantes in a suburb in Georgia; the video footage showed he was peacefully jogging. On March 13, an African-American woman, Breonna Taylor, was killed by the cops. Later, it transpired that they had botched it up again – they were searching an alleged suspect at a wrong address.

Indeed, the homeless streets of New York, perhaps one of the most democratic and expensive cities in the world, are a testimony of the destiny of the Black population in America. Even in the bitter, freezing cold, with temperatures falling below minus 40, they are out on the windy streets, in the night and during the day, poorly clothed, looking for the idea of fake warmth from the heating system’s steam which comes out from the streets and gutters. Capitalism in America is cold and cold-blooded – even a beggar has to get a coffee from a Starbucks café!

The prison system is yet another example, including those run by private parties, including the highly exploitative prisons, as reports say. Till about 2017, majority of the prisoners were either Blacks or Latinos/Hispanics, and the quantum of punishment they get is often disproportionate to the crime committed by them, it is reported.

According to a report by the Pew Research Centre, Blacks have long outnumbered Whites in American prisons. However, there has been a decline in the number of Black prisoners, according to new data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

The report declares: “At the end of 2017, federal and state prisons in the United States held about 475,900 inmates who were Black and 436,500 who were White – a difference of 39,400, according to BJS. Ten years earlier, there were 592,900 Black and 499,800 White prisoners – a difference of 93,100. (This analysis counts only inmates sentenced to more than a year.) The decline in the Black-White gap between 2007 and 2017 was driven by a 20 per cent decrease in the number of Black inmates, which outpaced a 13 per cent decrease in the number of White inmates… The gap between White and Hispanic imprisonment also narrowed between 2007 and 2017, but not because of a decrease in Hispanic prisoners. Instead, the number of White prisoners fell while the number of Hispanic inmates increased slightly. At the end of 2017, there were 100,000 more White inmates than Hispanic inmates (436,500 vs. 336,500), down from an inmate difference of 169,400 in 2007 (499,800 White inmates vs. 330,400 Hispanic inmates).”

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Trump decisively botched up the pandemic aftermath, in initial and total denial. Consequently, more than 100,000 Americans have died, a large number in New York, something perhaps which never happened even while putting the death toll together in the civil war, the first and second World War. Anyway, since it is geographically so distant in the map, America has had the illustrious history of inflicting death and destruction across the continent, but remains aloof and safe, facing no consequences for its actions, unlike, for instance, what Europe faced, and Soviet Russia, during the war against fascism.

Indeed, the thousands killed in the middle-east due to American policies and ‘blood for oil’, remains a fact of bitter realism. While Germany under Angela Merkel can give shelter to one million refugees from the Middle East, much of America can only suffer vicarious guilt and detached anxiety.

Even the pandemic seems to have killed more Blacks than Whites; in the manner that the poorest workers and migrants in India have suffered the most after a botched up lockdown announced by the Indian prime minister. Even a pandemic is prejudiced when translated in different geographical and social circumstances. Indeed, the unemployment figures among African American in a routine scenario is 25 per cent – almost three times the national average. In recent times, post pandemic, reports point out that of those arrested, 68 per cent are Black and 24 per cent are Latinos.

Among the White supremacists, like those who backed apartheid in South Africa for decades, the summering longing in the political unconscious is for a ‘back-to-slavery’ syndrome. ‘Make America Great Again’, the Trump slogan, in many ways reflected that – Make the Whites Call the Shots. They call the shots anyway.  Loosely translated, it means give more power to the powerful.

Every gesture and word of the militarist and narcissist US president, including holding the Bible outside  an Episcopal Church in Washington DC, after using rubber bullets and tear gas against peaceful protesters, and ‘kettling’ them, is reflective of this perverse ‘White American Nostalgia’. Not surprisingly, the bishop of the church, and other Church authorities, have expressed outrage and anger at his gesture amidst police violence, and has strongly condemned it.

The silver lining in this American explosion is that both Blacks and Whites, along with other communities, across the class and social spectrum, have collectively taken racism by the horn. It is reflected not only by the Miami cops, or the Houston police chief telling Trump to “Shut up”.

It is mostly reflected by the great gesture of the White protestors, including women, who line up as peaceful vanguard, in front, protecting the Blacks, telling the armed cops, “Come, get us first, will you?”

Migrant Crisis Will Haunt Modi Govt 2.0

The first anniversary of second term of the Modi Government will be characterised forever with images of poor migrant workers left struggling as if refugees walking aimlessly in a war zone, even reminiscent of pictures from the Partition. There are comparisons with Trump as self-adulation now deflated by events gives way to venting false anger against the states trying to cope with the Centre’s poor handling of the Corona Pandemic.

The unending exodus of penniless migrant workers triggered by the corona lockdown has cast a long dark shadow over the Modi government as it completed one year of its second term in office on May 30. This should have been a grandstanding of glorious achievements attained against apparent great odds with self-congratulatory speeches. It has turned into a media exposure of its shortcomings.

Though Modi and his ministers marked the occasion by flooding major newspapers with lengthy columns detailing the government’s key decisions over the past year, they could not get away from recurring reports and images of lakhs of stranded migrant workers struggling and trekking thousands of kilometres with little or no food and money to reach the safety of their homes. Their little children in tow or being carried. It is an image of a country still in the underdeveloped stratus of economies. But India is the fifth largest economy in the world!

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The Modi government has reason to be perturbed by these reports as they reflect poorly on its handling of this humanitarian crisis.  It is obvious that the Centre failed to anticipate the rush of migrants when the Prime Minister declared the first nationwide lockdown on March 24 at four hours’ notice. It was a failure of foresight. Worse, the Government remained in denial about the plight of the migrants for nearly two months after the lockdown was first imposed. 

Why four-hour notice? Not even the world’s most advanced countries would have had the courage to attempt such an ambitious clear out of the streets. In India, where millions sleep in the streets and hundreds of millions live in dire poverty living from day to day on available labour, away from family and home, this was a decision of astounding daring and unexplainable rationality.

For days those who had grown to gain some confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic suddenly wondered where is the planning, when they saw pictures of poor straddling to nowhere land. Surely the Modi Sarkar must have commandeered the great network of national and public transport at no costs barred to take migrants to safer places with safe physical distancing. Nothing.

This transpired to be another notebandhi type decision without any planning, without any infrastructure in place and with little regard to the poorest. They suffered the most then and they suffered most in this apparent show of strongman Modi. But the strong are not meant to hurt the weakest.

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With the government’s image now taking a severe beating, a defensive BJP has played the Trump card and countered charges against it by turning the spotlight on the poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic in opposition-ruled states. The saffron party is at pains to point out that it was actually the state governments that had failed to pass on the money and other benefits announced by “Modiji” to the rightful beneficiaries. So many echoes of America where Trump has blamed the states for the hundred thousand deaths. Trump can also blame China, but Modi cannot blame Pakistan this time.

At the same time, it is running a campaign to publicise the Modi government’ efforts to shore up the economy and focus on the specific relief measures initiated by it to provide succour to migrants, farmers and daily wagers.     

As part of this plan, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressed a series of press conferences to unveil the details of the Rs.20 lakh crore economic package which had been announced earlier by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation. 

This was followed by a string of interviews by Sitharaman to media houses in which she explained the benefits of the stimulus package and responded to critics about its shortcomings. 

Though the government’s package could have been announced at a single press conference, Sitharaman instead chose to phase it out over five days, a PR exercise in itself.

It is obvious as anything. The Prime Minister’s first announcement about the package and the finance minister’s follow-up explanatory media briefings were essentially an exercise in “headline management”, an attempt by the government to divert attention from the heart-breaking media reports about the migrant workers.  

And yet the migrant story refused to go away. 

The Modi government’s initial assessment that the situation would soon settle down came to a naught as there has been no stopping of this exodus and no end to the misery of those forced to make their way home on their own.

Television news channels, newspapers and even international media have been replete with reports about the plight of stranded migrant workers. And how they are cycling, walking on highways, tramping through fields and hitching rides in trucks and tempos in their desperation to get home. Many dying as well from accidents, exhaustion and illness. More than hundred migrants have lost their lives in accidents while undertaking this perilous journey.  

Managing the fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the underbelly of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Over the six years it has been in power, the saffron party has finessed the art of messaging and acquired an expertise in setting the political agenda. Events have taken over now. Neither twitter nor an adulating press can hide the scars of a badly planned response to the pandemic. Ordering shutdown was much easier than planning for one.

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But the corona crisis proved to be a rare occasion when the BJP and the Modi government’s strenuous efforts failed to change the narrative in its favour. Realising that the government’s image was continuing to suffer, the Modi government decided to operate Shramik special trains to transport migrant workers to their villages. 

Coming nearly two months after the first lockdown was declared, the operation of special trains is a proverbial case of too little, too late. The inept handling of the travel arrangements only added to the government’s woes. Its decision to bill the migrant workers for their fare home provided fresh ammunition to the government’s critics to mount a fresh attack against it.

As if it did not have enough on its plate, the ensuing war of words between the BJP and opposition made matters worse for the Modi government. Cooperative federalism was forgotten and politics was soon at play in the middle of the greatest threat in modern times.

Unable to cope with the rush of travellers on the special trains, Railway minister Piyush Goyal attempted to turn the tables and blame the chief ministers of opposition-ruled states for not giving their consent to receive the Shramik special trains. 

West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee was the main target here as the BJP is expanding its footprint in this Eastern state and with assembly elections due next year, the saffron party did not want to pass over this opportunity to show her in poor light. It had earlier buttonholed the Mamata Banerjee government for not following the COVID-19 guidelines and has periodically fielded West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankar to needle the chief minister. 

And then there was the unedifying spectacle of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath engaging in a war of words with Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra over ferrying migrants from UP to their native villages. The Congress leader wrote to the chief minister, seeking his permission to transport them in the 1,000 buses which had been especially commandeered by the party. 

The Yogi government first said no, then yes and then demanded necessary documentation of the vehicles. This back-and-forth continued for some time and finally ended with the Congress sending back the buses parked for the stranded migrants at the state borders, accusing the Yogi government of indulging in petty politicking.

There is no denying that the migrant crisis has tarred the Modi government’s image. And yet there is little doubt that it will eventually emerge unscathed from this mess thanks to a lacklustre and divided opposition. Unless the opposition comes from a coalition of state parties.

But, for the moment, the government is merely in damage control mode.

India-China Standoff Will Linger On

Is an assertive China considering a strategic shift in its equation with India? Is it ramming home claims on areas in Ladakh and following up on its protest after Ladakh became a Union territory last year? Is that what the current India-China stand-off is all about? Many experts believe that this time with incursions into Indian territory in several places in the western and eastern frontier China is sending out a message. What has surprised policy makers is Chinese intrusions into the Galwan area, where the boundary is clearly marked. This is a clear departure from the past. Indian and Chinese soldiers are in an eyeball to eyeball face-off in Pangong Tso, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie points.

Western experts including strategic analyst Ashley Tellis is not ruling out the possibility of a short armed conflict. President Donald Trump, has also waded in to say he is ready to mediate. As in the case of India-Pakistan and Kashmir, India has politely turned it down, not wishing to draw US into this conundrum.

Senior Pentagon official, Alice Wells also took the opportunity to lambast China. She dubbed China’s actions as provocative and disturbing. While many hardliners were thrilled with her remarks, the government wisely kept quiet. India is well aware that the Trump administration, with the presidential polls in mind is ready to point fingers at China, but Delhi would at the moment much rather tackle its issue with Beijing without interference from other nations. In short the Modi government does not wish to provoke China, while standing firm on its national interest.

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Western analysts point to China’s growing self confidence and its belief that Beijing is now militarily, economically and politically strong enough to challenge not just its Asian neighbours but the US as well. Westerner see the current stand-off as a part of China’s overall aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, its determination to keep Taiwan away from the observed status in the World Health Assembly, or Beijing’s strong armed tactics in Hong Kong, all fall into a pattern. China’s “wolf warriors’’ are a manifestation of President Xi Jinping’s resurgent China.

Border tension between the two Asian giants are nothing new.Depsang in 2013, Chumur in 2014, and Doklam in 2017 were serious transgressions. Despite all this both India and China are proud of the fact that not a single shot has been fired along the LAC and peace broken perhaps just by fisticuffs between PLA and Indian soldiers.

 Incursions into each other’s territories happen. Mostly at the onset of summer where patrolling by both armies intensify. India usually downplays the intrusions and says it is because the Line of Actual Control, has not yet been clearly demarcated. Yet all experts agree that this time it is different. Mainly because the incursions had happened at five places almost simultaneously. Almost five thousand PLA soldiers are said to have crossed inside Indian territory and possibly preparing to stay on through the summer. The Galwan area is a new inflection point. Here the border markings have not been contested by either side. So China possibly wants to claim this area too.

The Galwan river flows from Aksai Chin to Xinjian province of China before entering Ladakh. Retired army officials say that the idea may be to make it difficult for the Indians to service its attachments deployed close to the Karakorum pass. At the same time clashes are frequent because India is building roads and airstrips on the border areas. So areas not earlier patrolled is now easier to access and so encounters between the PLA and Indian patrols more frequent.

However the public mood in India is much anti-China. The covid 19 pandemic has led to much criticism against China worldwide, and India is no exception. Many BJP supporters want a tougher line on China, more so as they believe that China is under pressure from the Trump administration. But in the government guided by the MEA is much more circumspect.

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Most Indian analysts rule out a military confrontation. They say both countries are pragmatic and will not risk an armed conflict. In case of escalation, India is prepared to stand its ground. Though China is way ahead of India in military capability, in the recent years Indian defence procurements have steadily risen, and today it is better equipped to face the Peoples Liberation Army. The current stand-off is arm flexing by China but will be diffused. India has infinite patience and like China has dug in its heels. No one is blinking yet. But efforts are on to sort to diffuse the situation.

At a MEA briefing on Thursday India made the point that the Indian army was following all procedures laid out in India-China bilateral protocols on border management. Several rounds of talks between commanders have so far not been able to resolve the issue. India is unlikely to budge till the PLA troops withdraw from territory inside Ladakh and status quo ante is maintained.

Is China upping the ante at a time when India is at its most vulnerable? Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team is struggling with the pandemic as the curve refuses to flatten despite a strict earlier lockdown. The economy already spluttering before the pandemic, is now in the doldrums. The economic forecast remains bleak, as with many other countries, including China. But this has more to do with China’s stand on Ladakh.

The intrusions into Ladakh synchronises with China’s claim over the whole of the Aksai Chin. China captured part of Aksai Chin after the 1962 border war, while a large portion of territory was ceded to China by Pakistan, while fixing the international border between the two.

India too has begun talking of akand bharat, which includes the entire POK, China has kept up its claims on parts of Ladakh. Home minister Amit Shah said in Parliament that India was determined to get back all of the land ceded to China by Pakistan in Aksai Chin. Foreign minister Jai Shankar claimed POK as Indian territory and looked forward to its unification.

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Last August, when the Narendra Modi government decided to scrap Kashmir’s special status, bifurcate Ladakh and make it a union territory with administrative control with Delhi, China objected. In fact, two days after Article 370 was abolished, China’s foreign office spokesman said the new UT of Ladakh had incorporated territory which came under China’s administrative jurisdiction. The spokesman said it was a challenge to Chinese sovereignty.

The current stand-off in Ladakh is possibly China’s way to claim areas in Ladakh as its own. India has also been talking of Gilgit-Baltistan as its own territory. POK is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and a part of Xi Jinping’s ambitious belt and road project, which India has stayed away from. India protests when roads and bridges and airstrips are built in the area.

The current crisis is likely to linger on for months. But unlikely to become another border war. China is merely flexing its muscles and India continues to hold its ground.

Misery And Hope In Covid-19 Days

The relentless exodus of the migrant workers continues, on train, trucks and tempos, and, of course, on foot, unabated. Scores have died in road accidents, several at a railway track in Aurangabad, as they slept after a long trek, and a goods train crushed their emaciated bodies. All that was left on the tracks was their blood and a few dry chapattis, even as the Prime Minister, for reasons only he knows, refuses to release free food from the Food Corporation of India godowns to the poor and the workers. The godowns reportedly store around 70 million tonnes of food grain, while the summer harvest will create another bounty.

At least 40 million workers are going to lose their jobs and livelihood in the post-pandemic era in India. This might just be a conservative estimate because most of these workers are outside the organized and formal structure of the Indian workforce, constituting almost 93 per cent of the labour force, almost half of them Dalits and from extremely backward castes, including adivasis and women. They have virtually no trade union rights, no fixed daily wages, no holidays, no maternity leave or crèche for children, no provident fund or pension, not even fixed work days. They are the eternal ‘free labour’ floating in an exploitative market, outside the gambit of trade unions.

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That is why, perhaps, the call of 10 trade unions for a nation-wide strike against the new, draconian labour laws on May 22 last, did not elicit much response on the ground. The labour laws are a direct attack on rights won after decades of struggle including the 8-hour work day, and the Inter-State Migrant Act, among other laws. The suspension of a large number of labour laws for three years by the Yogi Adityanath government in UP and the ‘hire and fire’ policies in several states will not only adversely impact the formal sector workers, but also the migrant workers who have no trade union rights.

Those who will be hit the hardest are those who are at the bottom of the unequal ladder. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, the garbage-pickers, dressed in tatters with no protective equipment, not even masks, do their jobs diligently, and without any thanks from any corner whatsoever. You can see them carrying the huge pile of urban waste of the consumer society on their ramshackle carts, stopping only to greet other garbage collectors – the rest of the society really cares two hoots for them.

Some of the sanitation workers in Delhi, indeed, as reports say, have been silent victims of Covid-19. Not too many reporters are chasing their daily life stories, or their health situation. Many of them remain anonymous in their tragic destinies; those who go through the trauma are reportedly never compensated.

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Of the scores of stories which have been missed in the lockdown because reporters can’t go to the ground due to difficult circumstances, strict regulations and containment zones, the everyday stories of the heroic garbage-collectors and sanitation workers too have been missed. They remain invisible, condemned and exiled – as in so-called normal times.

Those who have become invisible are only becoming visuals of infinite tragedy, like an endless film with no intervals. A dead mother lying on a thatched funeral bed with her two little sons crying, touching her forehead. A young mother carrying two children on her two shoulders. A woman climbing on the side of the truck, while another man holding a child just about sliding up from the side. A desperate man, crying aloud, trying to make a phone call to someone no one knows. Women with sacks on their heads walking on the highways, the streets, in empty landscapes, as if in a long march to nowhere. Men holed up in the b lack hole of a truck like cattle for slaughter. Feet smashed with earth, broken, destroyed, ravaged skin, nails, toes. Feet full of blood.

There are moments of optimism too, when hope floats. A smiling child with a plateful of food. A rare moment. A Muslim man standing with a placard: Please stop, take rest, eat and drink something. This is the duty the Muslims are doing during the daily fasts in the holy month of Ramzan. Location unknown.

The Gurudwaras, as usual, are distributing food to thousands of people. Their big hearts are there for all to see, as the big meals they prepare in big utensils. God is with them.

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Shariq and his friends distributing food and fruits to far-away nooks and corners day after day since the killings started in Northeast Delhi. No publicity, no fanfare, no photo-ops. A daily task.

Scores of the others are doing the same, opening their hearts and doors, giving food and love, day after day. In Varanasi some students wake up all night because the workers are travelling in the night to escape the heat and the police: they are distributing food and water. Jadavpur University students have made a commune and collective kitchen: distributing food and sanitisers to cops, traffic cops, vegetable vendors, slum-dwellers, for weeks.

One man goes alone to a highway with butter milk every day, somewhere in south India. He spots a man walking from Bangalore to Madhya Pradesh – an old man. So he gives him Rs 400, and that is all he had.

Surprise, surprise:  the old man calls him and thanks him. He has reached home with the Rs 400, hitch-hiking on a truck half-way. So what does the old man tell the ‘butter milk man’: “Come, visit my village; and send me your address, I will return the money. He also says that we should not lose hope because there are still people who are ready to share and help. Humanity and humanism lives. Yes, it does.”

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A man writes a hurried letter in Hindi. He is a migrant worker and the letter is addressed to the owner of a cycle, perhaps his employer. He says he has a handicapped child and no money, and he has to reach Bareilly, so he is stealing the cycle. He is a ‘gunahagar’ – he has done a crime, he confesses in the letter.

A migrant worker who has returned to Gurgaon called a female volunteer of the collective, Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch who make 30,000 meals a day for the workers, and have fed lakhs of workers since the pandemic began. He says he has rejoined work but can he and his co-workers get food. She says, we are providing food to jobless and homeless workers, but do give your address, we will try to reach you. So what does he say in response?

“Didi, now that I have a job, I will manage. Give the food to those whose kids are hungry.” With tears in her eyes ‘Didi’ thanks him profusely.

Indeed, even as huge unemployment and starvation stare millions of migrant and organized workers in India, eminent economists are repeatedly appealing to the Centre to drastically revise its strategies. Former RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan, for instance, has yet again said that the economic crisis is so huge and relentless that much more needs to be done. He told a portal in a recent interview: “I think it is particularly so in the case of India because we have years of economic drift in which our growth had slowed, our fiscal deficit has gone up. There is a lot more we need to do to put economy back on track. We have to pull all stop.”

Kashmir Headed For A Hot Summer

While the nation including the politicians, bureaucrats, police, public and last but not the least Corona warriors that include doctors, nurses and hospital staff are busy combating Covid-19, militancy in Kashmir is picking up with the onset of summer months. India need to remain vigilant.

Traditionally, there is a spurt in infiltration attempts with the opening of passes but the last month has seen unprecedented bloody encounters resulting in the death of 22 security personal including Col Ashutosh Sharma, Maj Anuj Sood and three other brave hearts. The tracking down and final elimination of a prominent leader of Hizbul Mujahideen Riaz Naikoo, is a shot in the arm of security forces, but should not be termed as retaliatory or revenge operation as covered by the mainstream media.

While the world is desperately fighting against the global Coronavirus pandemic, Pakistan has been continuously perpetuating proxy war. It is reliably learnt that Pakistan is motivating Covid-10 affected terrorists to infiltrate and carry out violent actions against Indian security forces so that they can go to heaven after their martyrdom. While Hizbul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Ansar Ghazwat-Ul-Hind remain the main active Tanzeems, Lakshar-e-Taiba leadership in Pakistan has floated a new outfit called The Resistance Front to give an indigenous look and ward off the pressure from Financial Action Task Force.

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A lid was kept on the internal security situation with a heavy hand by overwhelming deployment of security forces ever since article 370 was abrogated in early August 2019 but the dissatisfaction and disenchantment amongst the Kashmiris was brewing over time. Come November and as winter set in, the infiltration from across the Line of Control (LoC) came down to a trickle.

The central government thought that the security forces were on top of the situation; but it was the combination of the curfew, crowd control measures, uncertainty, prolonged house arrest of political leaders, blocking of internet and social media and the inclement weather that did not allow terrorists groups to reorganise and operate freely during the winter months. This period also witnessed a reduction in number of stone throwing incidents as the locals were not sure whether the security forces will continue to show restraint or use adequate requisite force.

At the beginning of this year, schools and colleges in Kashmir started reopening, internet was restored and the situation appeared to be inching towards normalcy in the Valley. Ironically, as the 70-odd Kashmiri political leaders including Abdullahs were released in March from house arrest, the rest of the nation was confined to homes due to the threat of Covid-19 and Kashmiris came at par with the rest of the countrymen. The security forces in Kashmir had to have a balancing act of fighting on two fronts, militancy and Covid-19. That is not an easy task.

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A few questions have arisen as to why the armed forces are facing so many casualties including those among senior officers. The answer lies in the ethos of the officers of the Indian Army.

The Indian Army has a tradition of officers leading from the front. This was evident during the various wars fought after Independence. Officer casualties have been proportionately higher than the other ranks.

This is also true for some other armies of the world. Israel is a shining example. In the Armoured Corps Memorial and Museum at Yad La-Shiryon, Latrun, there are over two thousand names of officers and enlisted men who have died between the age of eighteen to twenty years.

It was heartening to see that one section of the museum in Israel is dedicated to an Indian army officer; Lt Gen JFR Jacob, a Jew who was the brain behind the meticulous planning of operations in East Pakistan, later Bangladesh, in Indo-Pak War of 1971. Incidentally, in the 1971 War a large number of casualties were officers from the batch that got commissioned on 13 November 1971, from Indian Military Academy, barely three weeks prior to the war.

In Kashmir, Handwara has traditionally been a hot bed since it has thick forests around it like Machipora, Kainyar, Kandi, Harfudda, Saren, Dalar, Surhalu and Galganjan. Its proximity to the LoC gives it the correct positioning for reception areas after the infiltrations. Infiltrating groups come to these forests, have their rest and the recoup and plan operations using these forests as bases.

Invariably over the years, there have been bloody encounters with security forces. The army has always had one to two Special Forces teams operating in these areas alongside the Rashtriya Rifles and regular infantry battalions operating in a grid pattern in the hinterland.

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Detailed analyses of the counter insurgency operations in J&K since 1989 reveal that the maximum casualties to own troops are either at the beginning of the operation when the exact location of the terrorist is not really known to the troops and they are fired upon by terrorists hiding in houses or under natural cover; or at the end of the successful encounter when own troops in a rush of adrenaline, close in to mop up the operation but some half dead terrorist opens up at close range knowing fully well that he is going to die. In both cases, the officers are generally leading and have greater chances of becoming casualties.

The 15 Corps Commander, Lt Gen BS Raju in a recent interview claimed that the leadership of various Tanzeems active in the Valley and named above; has been eliminated. Basu says local recruitment has come down by 45 percent. However there are further dangers.

The US pullout from Afghanistan will give Pakistan leverage over Afghan terror groups who can be easily diverted to Kashmir. The foreign constituents of terrorist networks would substantially be increased. Regarding the leadership, most of these Tanzeems work in cellular system and there is always a standby leader who takes the place of the slain leader. Sometimes the same alias like Abu Bakker is also inherited by the new leader.

Since Pakistan was not able to get adequate traction and leverage in its relentless diplomatic efforts to isolate India internationally after the abrogation of Article 370, it is likely to push a large number of terrorist groups into the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir this summer. Our brave officers and jawans are having to fight on two fronts, the Covid-19 pandemic and the terrorist escalation from across the border. The launch pads and training areas as per the Corps Commander, are working at full capacity and therefore we need to be fully prepared for a hot summer in the Kashmir Valley. Ready the Indian Security Services will be.

Modi’s Gujarat Model Blown Apart By A Virus

How myths collapse when faced with reality! When Narendra Modi swept to power in 2014, his meteoric rise from chief minister to the national political stage was attributed essentially to the success of his Gujarat model of development which was touted to have transformed his home state into a living paradise. But six years later as India battles the Covid-19 pandemic, the Gujarat model of development is unravelling.

The fancy infrastructure in the state’s main urban centres, the uninterrupted power supply, the extensive road network and the flow of private investment have proved to be of little help in handling the rising number of novel coronavirus cases. 

For the record, Gujarat is among the top three states along with Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu which have the highest number of corona infections and deaths in the country. Till May 23, Gujarat had recorded a total of 13,300 coronavirus cases with a seven-day growth rate of 7.66 per cent and over 800 fatalities, second only to Maharashtra which tops the list. 

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Unable to handle the corona crisis, Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani has consistently blamed the spread on the large number of Gujarati Muslims who travelled to Delhi in early March to attend a religious meeting of the Tablighi Jamaat, “a missionary movement”.

While this finger-pointing helps push the Bharatiya Janata Party’s communal agenda, the truth is that Gujarat is currently paying the price for its poor public health system. It is an acknowledged fact that successive state governments did not invest adequately in public health facilities. With the state showing little interest in this vital sector, it has been open season for private players whose medical services are more expensive and, therefore, beyond the reach of the poor. 

If Rupani is struggling today to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, Modi has to share the blame as he did little to ramp up the rickety health care infrastructure in the state during the 13 years he was chief minister.   

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The budgetary allocation for the health sector in Gujarat can only be described as meagre. The state’s outlay for health and family welfare sector was Rs.923 crore for 2020-21, down from Rs.10,000 crore spent in 2018-19. These official figures tell their own story. Even states like Rajasthan and Bihar, which are not exactly known for their high-quality health infrastructure, have higher budgetary allocations for the public health care facilities.

In that case, what exactly is the famous Gujarat model of development all about?  This model is essentially focused on building infrastructure – from roads and highways to tall impressive buildings, and attracting foreign and domestic investments. During the years when Modi was chief minister, Vibrant Gujarat summits, were organised every alternate year to attract private investment to the state. This high-profile event was chalked up as Modi’s personal achievement as it brought in private investment to the state. This open invitation to industrialists to set up shop in Gujarat also won him the support of the corporate sector which literally went out on a limb to support Modi’s candidature as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial face in 2014.

But in the process of building infrastructure, encouraging industrial growth and promising ease of doing business, Modi failed to pay sufficient attention to human development which clearly did not figure as a priority area for him. The result was that while Gujarat made impressive gains on the economic front and registered high growth rates, its social indicators lagged far behind. 

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The economic strides made by Gujarat were flouted as a success story, worthy of replication across the country. However, this was only half the story. It failed to tell you that the economic gains had not percolated down to benefit the larger mass of people and had instead been cornered by a small affluent minority. The vast majority continued to live in poor conditions with little access to quality health care or hygiene standards. Whether it is the health of children or the mortality rates of adults, Gujarat does not boast of a good record.  

Then again the Gujarat model has not been kind to the large army of migrant workers who have travelled from as far as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar Odisha and Rajasthan to work in the state’s industrial units or in the unorganised sectors. Since most of the migrants are poor and semi-literate and, unable to speak up for their rights. 

If it was not for the corona crisis, the plight of these migrant workers would have gone unnoticed. They have been living and working in pathetic conditions with the host state failing to acknowledge their contribution to Gujarat’s economy. Denied their wages during the lockdown and no proper food and shelter, angry migrant workers in Surat and Vadodara have staged angry protests, which have even turned violent on occasion, to demand food and a passage back home to their native village.

And if it was not for the COVID-19 pandemic, the myth about the Gujarat model of development would not have been busted. It took a miniscule virus to expose the underbelly of Gujrat model.

Weather Reports: The New Frontier Of Indo-Pak war

People listen to weather reports to plan their days or weeks for chores such as when to put out clothes to dry, go out etc. Perhaps the weather man never thought that weather reports can be weaponized. It is India which lobbed the first weather report bomb starting the weather report wars with Pakistan.

The strategy thought out in the secret meeting rooms of the Indian strategic defence cabals is to make a virtual claim on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as called in India, or Azad Kashmir as named by Pakistan. ‘Doordarshan’ is under instruction to pretend that POK is Indian. It is to give the daily weather reports for all of Kashmir including POK but call it simply Kashmir.

Not to be outwitted, Pakistan retaliated with the same. They are now giving weather reports for all of Kashmir, including Jammu and Ladakh, as if they were all part of Pakistan. It is all about visual representation of territory.

Visual representations of territory have played a significant role in the national imagination of people. Nations and states have reinforced such representations through school textbooks, maps, documents, decrees and legal instruments. In the age of mass media, internet and related proliferation of information, any news can become a source of confrontation between states.

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The Indian official television broadcaster, Doordarshan, has adopted a new media offensive now for over a week. Weather bulletins on Doordarshan and All India Radio have started featuring weather forecasts of Mirpur, Muzaffarabad and Gilgit-Baltistan area of Kashmir over which Pakistan has territorial control and India claims the territory. In a reaction to this, Pakistan has carried weather reports of the Indian side of Kashmir on its official television channels.

Notably, Indian broadcasts follow the bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into two Union Territories (Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh) under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, 2019 in August 2019.  In the same month, India had already revoked Article 370 of Indian Constitution which accorded special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and involved special provisions for the residents of J&K. Pakistan at that point had raised the issue at the United Nations without much success. India is now unravelling its grand design and making people imagine POK as if it is part of India.

Geopolitically, this is a well-known strategy of claiming territory with the approach of place-naming and place-making and establishing a norm through repeated usage of suitable nomenclature that the place belongs to us. Examples abound of creation of a sense of belonging by such means by India’s erstwhile colonizers, the British. Historically the British were an important factor in the current territorial dispute at India’s northern expanse as to who the territory belongs to.

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An important task of the state is to invoke a territorial image of the state and familiarize the larger population with it. School textbooks and official maps play this role effectively to make its territory and places legible for the state population. Place-making often involves creation of new activities, economic or otherwise at a particular location. In this case, the weather forecasts is one such activity, with which not only the Indian State but the people can also identify.

As critical geographical as it may sound today to investigate the British colonialist and imperial exercises, it is instructive that such methods of place-naming and place-making have existed even in ancient Indian texts like Puranas, the Epics and related texts. The geographical references to seven dwipas, including Jambu Dwipa cover the whole Eurasian expanse in detail with Mount Meru (The Pamir) as the centre of the Eurasian continent. The description stretches to as far as the Mediterranean and the Eastern coast of Africa.

Furthermore, there is astonishing detail about the orientation of the Himalayas and the adjacent mountain ranges. The river systems originating from the present-day Tibet are explained in detail with the directions of the flow of rivers. The “Puranas” include, the origin of the universe and the earth, the oceans and continents, mountain systems of the world, regions and their people and astronomical geography” (Ali, 1966). However such detailed descriptions were never laden with the ideas of capture or control of territory but only for the sake of geographical knowledge.

Within this literature, the expanse of Bharatvarsa is mentioned in detail on numerous occasions. This fact of geographical unity of the subcontinent remained unchanged and unchallenged until the moment of partition in 1947. The partition in 1947 essentially created a rupture in the regional, human and physical geography of the Indian sub-continent into two separate states of India and Pakistan. Perhaps, it is this longer geo-historical imagination that takes precedence over recent history since partition when the weather reports are broadcast on the national television channels.

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The territorial claims in Kashmir are now becoming more visible and perhaps a beginning of a new geopolitical imagination of post 1947 India is being given shape and root.

Since 2014, the Indian government’s approach under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been quite assertive on the issue of Kashmir and related terrorism emanating from Pakistan. The response to acts of terrorism has been more in terms of military action at the Line of Control, But for the first time a nuanced approach to visually construct that represents the whole Kashmir as Indian, has been adopted.

Reports indicate that Mr. Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor who is also an intelligence expert on Pakistan, has been instrumental in developing and implementing this strategy of weather forecasting of the larger territory of Kashmir and thereby indicating that it is Indian. On the other hand, reactions of the international community may only become evident when real world diplomacy resumes after the end of the global shutdown due to the CoVID19 pandemic. Until then, the otherwise innocuous weather report, produced by non-political meteorologists, has become the new political battle ground between India and Pakistan.

Dr Krishnendra Meena is Assistant Professor and teaches at School of International studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

No Lockdown For Liquor

One change the Coronavirus pandemic has unleashed in India’s private and public lives that was unimaginable only a few weeks ago, is of the state conducting home deliveries of alcohol.

It is dictated by stampedes at many places across the country when the liquor vends re-opened after 40 days’ lockdown, burying physical distancing in the dust. They got even the Supreme Court to nudge state governments to consider online sales and home delivery.

This is a radical departure in a tradition-bound country with a diverse population that practices faiths many of which, per se, disapprove of alcohol consumption.

Add to this, the cultural mores. Although history is replete with evidence of soma, sure and shiraz and mythological narratives talk of ancient Indians drinking, there is no reference to it in Ramayan and Mahabharat, two of the mythology-backed TV serials currently being re-run to keep the Corona-hit locked-in people entertained and home. 

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Whether drink-at-doorstep is progress or if Indians have turned ‘modern’ is debatable. The age-old squeamishness about alcohol consumption has been given a go-bye for the greed to generate revenue, by even adding a hefty “Corona Cess”.  Necessity has become the virtue for central and all state governments except Gujarat, Bihar and Nagaland and the Lakshadweep union territory. It’s supposedly temporary, but one can’t be too sure of the future.

Two very apt lines have gone viral on the social media: “When a drunken man falls, nobody lifts him. But when the economy falls, all the drinking men gather to lift it.”   

Significantly, there is no objection from the politico-cultural czars who dictate what people should wear, eat and drink. They don’t seem to mind their governments profiting from selling liquor. Eschewing beef and bovine urine talk and dress diktats for now, they have shut their eyes to the ill-clad families of daily-wage workers, left hungry and unpaid by their contractors, walking back, shoe-less, from big cities to their villages hundreds of kilometer away.

This tragically contrasts with opening of the liquor vends, especially when the same Supreme Court says it “can’t stop them from walking.”

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This modern-day Marie Antoinettes’ culture is omnipresent. With Gandhi and those who worked with the Mahatma long gone, the original ‘nashabandi’ adherents, now down-and-on-the-political- periphery, are also silent. They never took Prohibition seriously when they ruled and made money, conveniently ignoring Article 47 of India’s Constitution. Also a Directive Principle of State Policy, it prescribes: “….the State shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health”.

All are guilty of shedding principle for practical reasons. Truth be told, Prohibition does not win votes and drains the exchequer. The law, whenever and wherever applied, has been impossible to enforce given the porous international and inter-state borders. Past experiments that failed were by C. Rajagopalachari (old Madras State) and N T Ramarao (old Andhra Pradesh).

Nitish Kumar’s Bihar is the current example. Prohibition is non-debatable in Gujarat, although liquor flows in from nearby states. Erstwhile Bombay state developed ‘bevda’ (double-distilled hooch) culture till as Maharashtra, influenced by its powerful sugar lobby, it gradually went wet.

Alcohol has definitely ruined millions of families. Men resort to domestic violence, incur debt and take to crime. In segments of society where women, too, drink, damage is compounded, without giving women any social or economic advantage.  

Besides some committed NGOs, women where organized in groups, perhaps, remain the sole Prohibition supporters. Liquor bans have often spared them from penury and domestic violence. Sadly, Coronavirus has weakened these womenfolk, seemingly ending the debate if Prohibition delivers medically, socially and/or morally.

The ground has been laid over long years by going easy on collective conscience. Late Jayalalithaa financed her ‘Amma’ welfare schemes for the poor from excise revenue. Things were not different earlier, and not just in Tamil Nadu. They gain momentum before each election when freebies are distributed to the electorate.

If alcohol quenches thirst or kills, it also sanitizes. Thus sanitizers, direly needed to combat Caronavirus has alcoholic content, were consumes by many in Karnataka as a substitute to alcohol. Taking the cue as it were, some liquor manufacturers have used their expertise to make satinizers and donate them. Surely, they also serve who rinse their hands with sanitizer – before lifting the peg.

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Money remains the mantra. Alcohol sale delivered over 15 percent of tax revenues for 21 states in 2018-19. Earnings range from Punjab (Rs 5,000 crores) to Tamil Nadu (Rs 30,000 crores). Going by the booze-boom, the 2020-21 fiscal should witness a whopping rise for all.

These official figures, however, conceal inter-state smuggling and hooch produced and sold through the unorganized sector, statistics for which are seldom available.

India consumed 2.4 litres of alcohol per capita in 2005, which increased to 4.3 litres in 2010 and scaled up to 5.7 litres in 2016, a doubling in 11 years, as per a WHO report. Hence, the estimate to reach about 6.5 billion liters by the end of this year may be upwardly revised.  

“The big picture is that this is the right approach even if Covid were not wreaking havoc,” declares a Times of India editorial in support of home delivery. It seeks to draw a global picture of Covid-driven liquor policies adopted by different countries, confidently adding that “none have reported a conversion to teetotalerism.”

A “non-prohibition” U.S. has seen $2 billion more spent on alcohol in stores since the start of March than last year. Mexico has kept its citizens dry but also kept tequila production going and tequila exports have soared. Sri Lankans have taken to home brewing in the face of their government’s ban on booze.”

Historically, Prohibition is a failed notion the world over. The idea of restrictions on the use and trade of alcohol has punctuated known human history; the earliest can be traced to the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian law of 1754 BC Mesopotamia. In the early 20th century, Protestants tried prohibition in North America, the Russians between 1914 and 1925, and the US between 1920 and 1933.

Having presented both sides of the picture within this space, as a social drinker, I must confess to tilting towards ending Prohibition, but with caveats and controls that should come from within. Drinking, after all, is a personal choice that should have family consent and of course, economic and medical ability.   

But one thing is sure: Coronavirus compulsions are unlikely to end this to-drink-or-not-to-drink debate.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Get Ready For ‘New Normal’ In Post-Corona Times

Wherever you are in this recently-turned-surreal world, you’re either locked down at home; or self-isolated with minimal social contact; or, in the worst case, quarantined somewhere. In India, the entire population has been locked down now since March 24, and people’s movement has been severely restricted. The lucky ones have work that they can do from home; the less fortunate are seeing their incomes dwindle. Elsewhere in the world, such as in Finland where I temporarily reside, the population is so sparse that voluntary self-isolation and social distancing are thought to be enough to curb the spread of the deadly Covid virus that has held the world in suspended animation.

But no matter where you are, the weeks of isolation have probably begun to take their toll and affect your life in more ways than you could have imagined. For those eking out a living at the margins of the economy such as daily wage earners, casual workers, or those employed in the informal sectors (in India that means more than 80% of the workforce), the lockdown is like a devastating blow to their lives, a blow from which they could take months, if not years, to recover. For others, it has changed their lives in lesser but still significant ways.

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Some symptoms of those changes are palpable. When liquor sales were allowed in several Indian locked-down states, queues, some of them albeit socially-distanced, snaked outside liquor shops, and, in some places, stretched for several kilometres. Alcohol-deprived, locked-down denizens just wanted to stock up on booze, which to many is a convenient aid to escape the monotony and depression that sets in when movement is restricted, economic fortunes seem uncertain, and fear and anxiety looms large. The queues outside alcohol shops were probably longer than those outside stores that sold essentials such as food during the lockdown.

Several state governments, which get to set their own excise duties on liquor, raised the rate of taxation, some by as much as 70%, trying to maximise the revenues that can earn in an economy that has sputtered to a halt. These high prices for booze are unlikely to decline even after the Corona virus scare has ended (and no one still knows when that could happen).  

Alcohol consumption could be on the rise during the lockdown but there are less visible changes that are already affecting people’s lives. Staying indoors, often with children and other members of the family, 24X7 for weeks on end can take its toll psychologically. Even in a developed country such as Finland, police admit to getting increased number of complaints of domestic abuse and violence towards women and children. In India, data is as yet unavailable for that sort of behavioural changes but with entire families cooped up in (often) cramped homes; strapped for cash; or for even food and other daily necessities, it could be like ticking time-bombs.

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With much of the privileged world shifting to school education online during this period, many parents feel the pressure to cope with enforcing discipline on their children to adhere to the new norms of lessons via the internet—not an easy task, particularly when their children are very young and unaccustomed to the process. According to a few family therapists, in many cases, this could lead to abnormal tensions within families and affect family members adversely. Coupled with their own predicament—job cuts; reduced earnings; and the uncertainties about the future—such pressures, not inconceivably, this could lead to serious long-term psychological effects on people and even lead to familial fragmentation.

No one knows yet when the threat of the pandemic will ebb but psychologists and trend forecasters are already talking about a new way of living that may emerge. In many countries, notably in Europe, restrictions are being slowly relaxed. In Finland, restaurants will be allowed to operate in a limited manner (no more than 50 diners at a time) from June1. Schools are being opened for 11 working days from May 14, ostensibly to gauge whether the virus spreads further or not. In India, in some cities, people are being allowed to move around between 7 am and 7 pm in a sort of curfew relaxation. And standalone stores in many cities are now operating normally. Yet, as the threat of the virus refuses to die down, people have grown cautious about social mingling or being out and about in places where there are others.

These are trends that could come to stay. Many business models that are pinned on attracting volumes or numbers of people to make them viable—such as big restaurants; sports events; shopping malls; and so on—could be hit for a long time as customers and consumers decide to err on the side of caution even after the restrictions are gone. In some Chinese cities, after movie theatres were opened partially, they had to be shut down again not because of the renewed spread of the virus but because people just didn’t want to go and watch movies with others as they normally would have.

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The flipside of the pandemic-led paralysis of society could be in the form of innovations. Artists and musicians have already begun online virtual concerts on platforms such as YouTube with a pay as you please business model. Restaurants are cutting their overheads and focussing more on home deliveries of their fare as customer feel more comfortable and secure eating at home rather than visiting public places. Air travel is likely to change forever as business and leisure travel shrinks and people and businesses use the Internet to get work done. For many businesses that could lead to substantial reductions in cost.

Many may believe that these will only be a short-term impact of the pandemic. But perhaps not. The after-effects of the pandemic could be longer lasting. The ongoing crisis that the world is experiencing could upend many of the ways in which we live, communicate, and consume. The new normal after the Corona scare is over (whenever that is) would be very different from what we have been used to till now. It could be a not-so-brave new world.

Statism In Time Of Pandemic

Politics, it seems, is one part of national life that does not go into lockdown. Beneath the appearance of the whole country united in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the undercurrents of State-Centre relations continue.

These are testing times for Prime Minister Narendra Modi who hopes to come out of this with national as well as international compliments on his handling of the crises.

But it is the chief ministers who are actually doing all the heavy lifting in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic in their respective states. And they are not all getting the equal recognitions or complete support they deserve.

Faced with a serious public health emergency and a looming economic crisis, the chief ministers have a lot at stake and are, therefore, putting their best foot forward in managing the deadly coronavirus outbreak. They know they will be judged by their handling of the crises.

Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot have come in for praise for their quick and deft management of the pandemic. Kerala was a step ahead of other states as a proactive chief minister lost no time in announcing a slew of social welfare measures and initiated steps for setting up quarantine centres and testing facilities. Kerala has an advantage over other states as successive governments have invested heavily in health infrastructure. Gehlot also displayed similar alacrity in ordering an immediate shutdown, door-to-door surveys, testing and monitoring in Bhilwara when it was hit by a rush of infections. The Bhilwara model has since been replicated in other states.

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Among the other chief ministers – Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee – face a big challenge as Assembly elections are due in both the states. Bihar goes to polls later this year while elections in West Bengal are due next year.

Of the two, Nitish Kumar has to be on top of his game because the Bihar Assembly elections are to be held this November which gives him a small window of opportunity to contain the pandemic. The chief minister’s handling of the corona crisis will predictably be a major issue in these polls and have a huge bearing on Nitish Kumar’s electoral prospects. Though his government is making all-out efforts to procure testing kits and protective equipment for the medical staff, the chief minister has a tough task on hand as Bihar does not boast of a strong health infrastructure.

Then there is the troubling issue of migrant workers from Bihar who have been working in other states but now wish to return home as they have no jobs or money. Nitish Kumar was initially reluctant to facilitate their return as there was a fear that the infection could spread to the rural areas with the influx of such a large population. He first transferred a sum of Rs. 1,000 each to the one lakh-plus stranded migrant workers but later agreed to ferry them back after the Centre made necessary arrangements for their journey home by train. Nitish Kumar was forced to give in because migrant workers are an important vote bank as most of them invariably come home to cast their vote.

As BJP’s alliance partner, Nitish Kumar has been fortunate to get special treatment from the Centre which is more than willing to bail him out. The saffron party also has a big stake in the coming assembly election in Bihar. Nitish Kumar is further lucky as the opposition in Bihar is leaderless and hopelessly divided.

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Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, has a match on her hand as she has to contend with a strong and powerful rival in the BJP.  There is simmering tension between the Modi government and Mamata Banerjee with the Centre accusing her of withholding accurate figures of the corona cases and for not providing adequate quarantine centres and further lagging behind in testing. She has also received a lot of flak for indulging in minority appeasement by not enforcing the lockdown too strictly in the minority-dominated areas during Ramzan. To make matters worse, West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankar has shot off a series of letters to Banerjee charging that she had committed “monumental blunders” in handling the pandemic.   

Desperate and working hard to expand its footprint in West Bengal, the Centre has been particularly critical of the Trinamool Congress chief as the BJP believes this is an opportunity to show Mamata Banerjee in poor light.

Although West Bengal had ordered a lockdown before the Centre’s announcement and took necessary measures to manage Covid-19 cases, the Modi government chose to send an inter-ministerial team to the state for an on-the-ground assessment of the situation. This led to a war of words between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress with Mamata Banerjee accusing New Delhi of playing politics by singling out West Bengal for this treatment. Banerjee further alleged that the Centre had deprived West Bengal of its share of taxes and ignored her requests for additional funds required by the state to manage the pandemic.

While the Centre has not missed this opportunity to discredit Mamata Banerjee, it has been more generous towards BJP chief ministers. Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Gujarat’s Vijay Rupani and Uttar Pradesh’s Yogi Adityanath are struggling to contain the rising number of infections in their state but not too many questions are being asked of them by New Delhi. 

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Chouhan has a convenient explanation that he did not have sufficient time to make the necessary arrangements to deal with a crisis of this magnitude since he had taken over as chief minister when the pandemic had already gained a foothold in the state. However, Chouhan has no explanation for the fact that he had failed to appoint a health minister for nearly a month after he was appointed CM.

Unlike Chouhan, Vijay Rupani ought to have done far better as he inherited the famed Gujarat model of development, put in place by Narendra Modi when he was chief minister. This was expected to serve him well in the current situation. As it happens, the rate of infections in Gujarat is high and is continuing to climb.

Rupani’s lacklustre performance in managing the pandemic is matched by his poor handling of the large number of the restless migrant workers who were housed in makeshift camps in Surat and Vadodara. There have been several instances of violent clashes between the police and the migrants who wanted to go back home, giving the distinct impression that no one was in charge. 

Similarly, Yogi Adityanath’s efforts in dealing with the pandemic have also been found wanting. He is not helped by the fact that Uttar Pradesh’s health care infrastructure is shoddy to say the least. But, in his trademark style, Yogi Adityanath has conveniently added a communal tinge to Covid-19 pandemic and blamed the minorities for spreading the virus after a number of infections were traced to the Tablighi Jamaat assembly in Delhi. This has been exploited as a timely distraction from his government’s incompetence. 

Though Modi is being heaped with praise for his decisive leadership in this hour of crisis, the fact is that it is the chief ministers who have led from the front in this battle. There have been some signs of tension between the Centre and the states over the lack of funds and centralisation of powers by New Delhi but, for a change, the Modi government has chosen to listen to the chief ministers. It agreed to lift the ban on the sale of alcohol, as demanded by the chief ministers, as it had deprived the state governments of a  huge source of revenue which, it was pointed out, could have been used to ramp up their health infrastructure.

It is now to be seen if the Centre will put aside politics, be a uniting force, go a step further and release the pending share of taxes to the states and provide them with the monetary assistance they have demanded to help them deal with the corona crisis, whether they are pro or anti BJP.

State-Centre politics has not gone into lockdown, but it will be wise for Modi’s BJP to suspend it at least until the nation gets through the crises.