Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi [L] Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah [R] Image Credit: AP

The biggest story in India is currently the COVID-19 catastrophe. India tops the world in cases and largely avoidable deaths caused by the shortage of oxygen. The stories of pain of death of loved ones numb you as even infants in hospitals are hanging in the balance of oxygen supply.

Twelve days after hospitals first sent out the oxygen SOS, the shortage is still to be fixed. And, this has exposed and shown up the good governance claims of the Narendra Modi government.

Angry doctors, already terminally overworked in the COVID crisis, are having to waste valuable time begging for oxygen on social media rather than taking care of the overwhelming number of patients who need their attention.

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One example of the New Zealand High Commission which tagged and asked the chief of the Indian Youth Congress for help in oxygen cylinders will suffice. The foreign office got upset and the mission had to apologise and delete the tweet. The Youth Congress still supplied the oxygen. It is clear that managing optics is the forte of the BJP government, not addressing the crisis.

I wrote this long preamble my dear readers of SWAT analysis to try and explain the new lease of life to the federal impulse which was evident in the recent state elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry, which seemed to buck anti incumbency.

The subnational impulse

The fact is that it is only the subnational impulse coupled with what can be described as Tamil and Bengal exceptionalism, which defeated the current hegemon of Indian politics — the BJP.

The results in Kerala are also explained by the same impulse. Unlike the Congress in its heydays, the BJP has not been able to translate the absolute hold it has on the Hindi heartland to the south of the Vindhyas.

So effectively the only way to defeat the BJP is for the rooted regional leaders to take on what are always termed as “outsiders” in the electoral contest.

Leaders like Mamata Banerjee, currently the only woman chief minister (CM) in India and all set for her third stint as CM of West Bengal or Pinarayi Vijayan for his second term as Kerala CM, who bucked the historic pendulum politics of Kerala.

M K Stalin in Tamil Nadu is also a representative of the Dravidian parties, two of which are the dominant force in the South Indian state.

The regional impulse is totally at variance with the BJP and the Sangh view of India which wants centralised consolidation of the Hindu Samaj across the country.

Yet in this COVID-19 crisis we have seen again and again the states give in to federal impulses, such as stopping oxygen tankers in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh before they reach Delhi.

Holding the union of India together

The challenge of any PM in this crisis is to hold the union of India together. But, Modi has been slow to chide his BJP CMs — Yogi Adityanath and M L Khattar. The courts have stepped in and said no tanker can be stopped. But, this is a familiar pattern evident even in water sharing between states.

As the scramble for mass vaccination begins and as the centre passes the burden on to the states, we can expect more federal assertion. With the BJP’s victory streak, its leaders seemed to have forgotten the unique diversity of India of language and culture.

This diversity could stop the BJP in its tracks as rooted national leaders step up to challenge the BJP.

As for the other national party, the Congress has the choice of being a catalyst to regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, M K Stalin, Uddhav Thackeray, Tejaswi Yadav and Sharad Pawar or continue in its current irrelevant state. The opposition to Modi and Shah is now regional.