People watch Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address to the nation on a television in Siliguri on May 12, 2020. Photo: AFP

Most Indians will remember the year 2020 as an unmitigated disaster as the country battled an incursion by China, its economy faced a contraction for the first time in four decades and it recorded the most number of new Covid-19 cases in the world after the US and Brazil.

The question being asked now is, what are the nation’s political parties and elected representatives doing about these unmitigated disasters?

The answer is, far from focusing on resolving these issues, they have been busy squabbling with each other, trading personal insults and bringing up issues that go as far back as six decades in bids to make the other side look bad.

India is the world’s largest democracy, with a US$2.7 trillion economy, a population of 1.38 billion in the seventh-largest country by land mass, and it has the second-largest army after China. But its politicians appear to be third rate.

Since March, already reeling under the onslaught of the coronavirus, India suffered another major setback after an incursion into its territory by China’s People’s Liberation Army in the northernmost tip of Ladakh. The Indian government’s initial response was subdued, possibly as a move to regroup and get its counter-strategy in place.

The government has stayed quiet on these issues, responding only with the “situation is under control” type of comments.

Its silence during this time of crisis was perceived by opposition leaders as an attempt to suppress the issue in the hope it would tide over without attracting local or global attention. That turned out to be a mistake.

The main opposition Congress party led the charge by seeking more details, claiming they would help the government with a national consensus and strategies to fight off the virus, using its vast experience in governance.

Matters became worse after the killing of 20 Indian army troops by the Chinese. Persistent calls from the opposition forced the prime minister to call an all-party meeting to brief them on the situation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement that there had been no intrusion or occupation of Indian territory, and a clarification the following day, led to the Congress launching attacks on the government.

The government’s counter-attacks started with sharp reminders that the 1962 loss to China was under a Congress government and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Frequent jibes from Nehru’s great grandson, Rahul Gandhi, himself a past president of the Congress, provoked ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

His tweet on June 19 said: “It’s now crystal clear that: 1. The Chinese attack in Galwan was pre-planned. 2. GOI was fast asleep and denied the problem. 3. The price was paid by our martyred Jawans (soldiers).”

His next tweet on June 20, soon after Modi’s statement, said: “PM has surrendered Indian territory to Chinese aggression. If the land was Chinese: 1. Why were our soldiers killed? 2. Where were they killed?”

He followed up a day later with “Narendra Modi is actually Surender Modi,” playing on the word surrender.

Infuriated BJP spokesman Gaurav Bhatia called Rahul a “traitor Gandhi,” adding: “Nationalism to the half-baked 48 year old is as far-fetched as Italy is to Timbuktu.”

Snide references are often made in reference to Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi and her Italian origin.

Relations between the ruling BJP and the Indian National Congress have never been very cordial since the BJP in 2014 displaced Congress, which had governed since 2004. The Modi-led BJP vowed to rid the country of Congress, while the 134-year-old Congress party remained determined to outlast the challenge.

In the 2014 elections, Congress polled its lowest tally of 44 Lok Sabha members, while in 2019 it had 52 members elected to parliament.

Within days the bickering spread, with BJP President J P Nadda attacking Congress for allegedly accepting funds from the Communist Party of China for the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation from 2005 to 2009.

Set up on June 21, 1991, a month after Rajiv was killed, the RGF website says it helps students with scholarships, libraries, relief and rehabilitation, and natural resources management.

Nadda linked it to the widening of India’s trade deficit with China from $1.1 billion to $36.2 billion during 2004 and 2014, when Congress governed the country.

Congress hit back with spokesman Pawan Khera alleging the BJP’s parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had also been receiving funds over the past 25 years. Congress pointed out Modi’s home state Gujarat had received maximum investments from China compared with other states.

Congress followed that up with a harder punch, alleging PM Cares, a charitable fund with the prime minister as its ex-officio chairman, had also received funds from several Chinese companies that it named. Congress also alleged that PM Cares, set up in March 2020 to help those affected by Covid-19, was not transparent.

Randeep Surjevala, the Congress spokesman, also questioned the numerous trips made by Modi to China, four as chief minister of Gujarat and five as prime minister. He also questioned the BJP and RSS links with the Chinese in his June 27 statement.

On June 25, the anniversary of the imposition of the internal emergency by Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi 45 years ago, came in handy for the BJP to needle Congress. The emergency imposed on June 25, 1975, was seen as undemocratic and a dark chapter in Indian democracy.

Meanwhile, virus cases are increasing rapidly. In an effort to shore up its shrinking finances, the federal government increased the prices of retail petrol and diesel more than 10% each over the past few months, even as international prices remained little changed.

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