After breaking his silence of over two weeks Rahul Gandhi commented on what he described as the Prime Minister’s ‘style’ of functioning and suggested that a decentralised approach was essential for fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Wearing a new look, with hair parted from the left and clean shaven it took a while to recognise him. Two weeks of self-imposed sabbatical had given him a rested look and that was well reflected in the remarks he made. He said that while stressing on his and the Congress's ‘constructive’ support to the government in this moment of crisis this was not the time for indulging in a political blame-game. That might come later when there are elections and occasions for bare-knuckle slanging. This mellow posture was quite a break from his earlier positions when he was quick to question, on twitter and in split second, almost every issue the government had touched upon, or even contemplated.
‘I may disagree on a lot of issues with Narendra Modi ji,’ he said slowly, reminding you of the pauses that Nehru was noted for, ‘but today is not a time to get into all this. Today is a time to unite and fight the common enemy.’ This was his first press conference, via video link, on the response to coronavirus, after the new crisis this has caused concerns across the country. He continued, ‘The day India defeats COVID, but today, all I want to do is contribute positively. I will not indulge in personal and political battles. This is a time for us all to come together and fight the common enemy - the virus.’ He went on, ‘Today I want to give constructive advice. I don't want to get into any tu-tu-main-main.’
In response to questions during the hour-long interaction, Mr Gandhi said COVID-19 cannot be controlled; it has to be dynamically managed. And that is why states needed to have more power to tackle the contagion in their own specific way. This was what he had all along been saying.
‘I would like to see more power to be decentralised to the states. The Prime Minister should have a more detailed conversation with the states. But Modi ji has a different style of working. We can surely work around that style,’ he said pointedly.
‘The Centre needs to control the main arteries but states need to control their areas with regard to lockdowns. If some states want a more nuanced lockdown, they should have the choice and the freedom to do so.’
He stressed repeatedly that he did not want to dwell on criticism or post-mortem of the decisions taken like the nationwide lockdown announced overnight. ‘I don't want to go into the question of why we are in this position but testing is critical to ensure that non-hotspot areas don't become hotspots,’ he said.
A lockdown would help only to stop the virus for a short while, but it in no way could defeat it. ‘The only way to do this is to increase testing. We are chasing the virus. We need to go beyond and this is my advice to the government. We need to test aggressively and strategically.
‘Premature declaration of victory is fatal,’ he said in this context, not quite specifying what he was referring to. As if on cue or just before that Modi had called a meeting of chief ministers to discuss whether to extend the shutdown, even though some states like Odisha had decided to lift it on May 3. That meeting really agreed upon the need for a uniform policy though individual states might face their own peculiar problems. The need for consultations between the states and the Centre became important and in a way Rahul’s suggestions had their intended impact.
About the impact of the shutdown there might be different opinions, even among experts and virologists, apart from the misery this has caused to migrants and those displaced. Political leaders might have their own way of assessing the impact and the consequences, as they have the pulse of the people, though not in the clinical one. In that sense Rahul Gandhi’s remark that the shutdown can only be ‘a pause situation ’and what needs to be done is to go on testing ‘aggressively and strategically,’ becomes significant. He cautioned, ‘In no way does a lockdown defeat the virus. It helps only to pause the virus for a short while.’
Regarding the pulse of the people, Vivenkananda had said famously ‘Look at this wonderfully charitable race; look at the amount of gifts that are made in this poor, poor country; look at the hospitality where a man can travel from the north to the south, having the best in the land, being treated always by everyone as if he were a friend, and where no beggar starves so long as there is a piece of bread anywhere!
'In this land of charity, let us take up the energy of the first charity, the diffusion of knowledge. And that diffusion should not be confined within the bounds of India; it must go out all over the world. This has been the custom.’
According to the Indian Council of medical Research data the number of virus cases has gone up by 60 percent days of Rahul Gandhi’s press meet, with 3.83 lakh people being tested for Covid and 17,615 were found to be positive, that is a rate of just 4.5 per cent. The US tests five times more every day and in Germany it is close to 21,000. The ratio in India is a meagre 290 per million.
This constructive posture of the Congress leader had not gone unnoticed. The Shiv Sena, an ally of the Congress in Maharashtra, praised this stand of Rahul Gandhi and commented that this is the way a responsible opposition leader should behave during such crisis situations. It said that Rahul had shown maturity when he said this was not the time to quarrel when the country needs to fight united against the pandemic. In a pointed reference it said that the BJP’s success during election campaigning has been due to tarnishing the image of Rahul Gandhi.
In another case also Rahul Gandhi tweeted his appreciation of the government’s amendments to the foreign direct investment (FDI) norms, taking heed to his warnings. He mentioned he had cautioned of the possible takeover of Indian companies that have been badly affected by the economic slowdown.
The Commerce and Industry Ministry had earlier notified that foreign companies looking to invest in the country must now approach the government if they are in a nation that borders with India. Rahul Gandhi said he had thanked the government for accepting his suggestion. The FDI is allowed under two modes – automatic, that is companies that do not need government approval, or via the government, that is companies that need a go-ahead from the Centre. According to this, companies in Bangladesh and Pakistan need to take the government route. This has now been revised to include companies from China as well. Rahul Gandhi’s warning had come just the day the People’s Bank of China purchased a 1.01 per cent stake in the mortgage lending major the Housing Finance Corporation of India (HDFC).
It is in this context that Sonia Gandhi’s suggestion earlier to the Prime Minister needs to be taken. She had then suggested that officials take a voluntary salary cut and that government advertisements in the media be checked and similar austerity measures be undertaken to divert the funds for the poor who have been the most affected, by the loss of livelihoods and displacement. This was in response to Modi’s calling her as well as other leaders to seek their suggestions. Such consensus-building efforts need to be continued and the initiative has to come from those at the helm.
To quote Vivekananda again, ‘Three things are necessary for great achievements. First, feel from the heart. What is in the intellect or reason? It goes a few steps and there it stops. But through the heart comes inspiration. Love opens the most impossible gates; love is the gate to all the secrets of the universe. Feel, therefore, my would-be reformers, my would-be patriots! Do you feel? Do you feel that millions and millions of the descendants of gods and of sages have become next-door neighbours to brutes?
‘Do you feel that millions are starving today, and millions have been starving for ages? Do you feel that ignorance has come over the land as a dark cloud? Does it make you restless? Does it make you sleepless? Has it gone into your blood, coursing through your veins, becoming consonant with your heartbeats? Has it made you almost mad? Are you seized with that one idea of the misery of ruin, and have you forgotten all about your name, your fame, your wives, your children, your property, even your own bodies?’
In these extraordinary times there is a need for concerted action and for taking the entire country along. There is a lot of talent and energy and initiative and all that needs to be done is to harness all these to surmount this crisis. Such critical moments are both a challenge as well as an opportunity for tapping the potential of the country and bouncing back, perhaps, with even greater vigour.