2021 will be remembered for two events. The deadly impact of the coronavirus and the long-standing and disruptive turmoil among farmers.
The second wave of Covid-19 in the middle of the year was one of the worst tragedies to hit India in the past 50 years. There were desperate cries for help to secure hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and life-saving medicine. Each day brought new bad news, with friends struggling to survive or moving away. An unusually high number of celebrity deaths indicated that it was a virus that did not distinguish between the powerful and the underdog.
Some of those responsible for fighting the pandemic have been deemed to be in default. We were faced with a severe shortage of vaccines for months. The Election Commission has not banned the holding of mass rallies in election-related states. Politicians have set the worst example by promoting mass events. With the increase in Omicron cases, it is hoped that some lessons have been learned from the mistakes of the past year.
The other big story of the last year was the agitation of farmers, for the withdrawal of the three new agricultural laws of the Modi government. The government insisted that the new legislation was designed to allow small farmers to sell and buy grain outside of mandis and across states. Farmers feared that large private companies would squeeze them out and that the laws could end the MSP-based supply system. The well-organized farmers prepared for the long haul and camped for months on the highway with their tractors obstructing traffic. On Republic Day, there was a near riot outside Fort Rouge.
In Lakhimpur Kheri, UP, a convoy of cars, including one belonging to a BJP minister, mowed down four farmers and the agitators retaliated, killing two BJP employees and the driver of one of the vehicles. For a year, the government refused to give in despite roadblocks, violence, rallies and public hostility both in India and abroad. Finally, in November, the normally inflexible Modi backed down and agreed to withdraw the three disputed laws.
On the political front, the year was marked by four events: the decisive victory of Mamata Banerjee in the elections to the Assembly of West Bengal; the further weakening of Congress still controlled by the Gandhis, who preside over a rapidly declining empire; the emergence, under the astute leadership of Prashant Kishor, of other contenders for the mantle of opposition leadership; and finally the growing uncertainty within the BJP as to who is in second place in the party.
The power of Mamata
After its spectacular success in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal, the BJP entered the Assembly election campaign with arrogant confidence and all the guns. But despite its high-powered campaign, led by Prime Minister Modi, the BJP juggernaut has encountered a roadblock in the fiery Banerjee. The ruling Center party miscalculated by failing to project state-level leaders. His polarizing campaign, the brutal blows to Mamata and the mismanagement of the second wave of Covid did not please the voter. Modi’s jibe on “Didi o Didi” was seen as unworthy.
Emboldened by his success in Bengal, Banerjee now dreams of emerging as the leader of the alternative opposition to the Gandhis at the national level. She is courting disgruntled congressional leaders in other parts of the country. The AAP and the NCP also reduce the share of Congress votes.
Many in the opposition, and even in Congress, fear that the de facto president of Congress, who still loathes a formal coronation, may not be the best candidate to face a savvy Modi in 2024. Rahul Gandhi’s bad choices , frequent overseas travel and failure as commander-in-chief is reflected in the party’s waning prospects in once secure winning states like the Punjab.
Who is number 2?
The BJP has also seen its fortunes drop this year, but not as quickly as Congress. In 2019, after their spectacular victory in the legislative elections, Narendra Modi-Amit Shah’s team appeared invincible. Shah, as the all-powerful Home Secretary who tabled the resolution in parliament to revoke Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and continued to have his say in the BJP even after he stepped down as president, was the undisputed No. 2. But in 2021 the hierarchy is no longer so clear-cut. With all eyes on the UP Assembly polls, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has become a rising star.