Column | Raging letter wars in the time of second Covid wave

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh

The controversies nagging the handling of the the second wave of the pandemic have triggered 'letter wars'.

As face to face meetings are limited and there are no sessions of Parliament and assemblies, letters are gaining prominence in political discourse.

These harshly worded letters are critical of the government, but are meant more for public consumption than for response from the high authorities to whom it is addressed.

A majority of such letters are addressed to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and are released to the public even before the PM gets the time to go through them.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi and CPM general secretary Sitharam Yechury are among the key opposition leaders to resort to letters.

Unlike several prime ministers who replied to every letter received from MPs and heads of political parties before the internet era, Modi has been reluctant to indulge in replying directly to these open letters.

Modi, Sonia Gandhi
Modi, Sonia Gandhi. File photo: PTI

He does not believe such courtesies are needed when the intention is to publicly smear his office with accusations of failure and arrogance.

If critical letters received at least a formal acknowledgement from Modi's office during the earlier days of his prime ministership, now they are officially ignored.

But either Modi himself or trusted aides read these letters, especially from the Congress leadership and state chief ministers.

The official line is that Modi should not seem to be answerable to his political critics. There are different ways of dealing with the open letters. One is to outrightly ignore them. This is what happens to letters from opposition leaders and MPs.

Second is to deploy a minister to reply. This is what happened when Manmohan Singh wrote a politely worded yet firm letter on Covid management failures and how to rectify them.

The prime minister's office asked Health Minister Harsh Vardhan to respond in detail and to criticise the negative attitude of the Congress.

But when another former prime minister H D Devegowda wrote his suggestions, Modi called him and discussed the letter. It was seen as a snub to Singh.

The latest open letter writer is by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, demanding tax exemption for medical imports.

Modi entrusted finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to write an open letter refuting Mamata's charges.

But Mamata was not in agreement. Since she did not want to respond to the finance minister, she asked firebrand Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra to continue the argument.

The third option used by Modi is to pick a suitable occasion to reply to criticisms through a speech.

He would either use a political rally or an address to BJP workers to rebut the charges and attack the opposition for its “irresponsibility, false narratives and opportunism”.

The propaganda unit of the party, which itself is now a bit defensive, would amplify Modi's remarks through traditional and social media. However, Modi normally avoids such political rhetoric in his monthly Hindi radio broadcast Mann Ki Baat, preferring more positivity.

But the danger for any ruling party is when its own senior leaders start writing open critical letters.

This is what happened in Uttar Pradesh. Union Labour Minister and eight--term Lok Sabha member Santosh Gangwar has written a sharp letter to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on oxygen shortage and unresponsive bureaucracy in his constituency Bareilly.

Adityanath is another leader who refuses to respond to letters and critics, most prominent among whom is Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

As the pandemic situation worsens, the growing feeling is those in power have to either respond with action or allay concerns.

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