Time to resume political activity | Opinion – analysis
Five weeks ago, the national shutdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed the Indian economy in cold storage. It also seems to have put politics on ice. As the government prepares to gradually ease the economic freeze on May 3, politics must also emerge from hibernation. Politics, in essence, is about forging an agreement from various public policy positions. In fact, the very nature of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) invites divergent approaches to stop the spread of the virus and mitigate its impacts.
And yet, the current moment presents a set of paradoxes in the political arena.
First, although the pandemic presents a unique political moment with lasting consequences for parties and leaders, it is also a difficult moment for political mobilization. National crises are generally conceived as opportunities for citizens to rally around the flag, perhaps even more so in India than in many other democracies. Therefore, it is not easy for the Opposition to criticize the government’s handling of the crisis.
Second, the government is making monumental and high-cost decisions with the aim of protecting citizens from the pandemic. But, citizens, the Opposition and civil society fight to hold it accountable. On March 24, India instituted one of the strictest blockades in any country in the world. Was it a wise and forward-thinking decision or an overreaction? The counter-facts are too complex to answer this question accurately. Therefore, it is difficult to blame the incumbent because the crisis feels unprecedented.
Third, the crisis reveals huge flaws in India’s political economy: poor capital-labor relations, weak protections for migrants and informal workers, neglect of public health systems, and serious disparities between the haves and the have-nots. And yet, given the scale of the mobilization and its expected duration, citizens will most likely be out of breath when the dust finally settles. At that time, there may be little appetite to translate the lessons of the crisis into actionable reform. The emotional and psychological bandwidth of 1.3 billion Indians will stretch to its outer limits.
Fourth, while states are doing most of the heavy lifting, albeit with significant variations, their efforts are likely to be overshadowed by the unmatched visibility of the central government. Of the score of the measures taken to stop the pandemic, it is the state health workers, the police officers and the administrators who are in the front line. In normal times, differentiation at the state level might be possible. But the invocation of the Disaster Management Law Center (DMA) has reduced the political space available because it is the Center that is issuing guidelines on the closure, testing, acquisition and treatment infrastructure. States are chosen as simple implementers of central edicts. Even a success story like Kerala found its attempts to broaden the scope of permitted economic activities thwarted by New Delhi.
In the future, the policy should not continue to operate in a state of suspended animation. After all, other democracies have managed, albeit imperfectly, to balance the demands of democracy with the imperatives of crisis response. In the United States, there is a daily display of political disputes between Washington and state capitals and in the ongoing presidential campaign. Closer to home, South Korea just held a presidential election, registering the highest turnout in three decades.
Politics must also resume its course in India. While the open political dispute faces practical obstacles, some aspects of this crisis really deserve to be politicized. Perversely, the effort to depoliticize the crisis is itself a form of politicization.
First, this should not become a purely rally crisis around the flag. The objectives are too ambiguous and the compensations too complicated to justify such a frame. Although the dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party hampers effective criticism of the Center’s decisions, questions must be raised about alternative strategies and political approaches.
Second, although accountability for results is difficult, the government must be held accountable for its crisis modeling, mitigation efforts, and measurable outcomes such as treatment infrastructure. Citizens deserve detailed, data-driven, and model-based explanations for key strategic options, and regular updates on purchasing personal protective equipment, availability of hospital beds, capacity of intensive care units, and supply of ventilators.
Third, given that the crisis has revealed huge social and economic fractures, from the issue of seasonal migrants to the urban poor, the challenge for policy is to keep these issues at the forefront rather than waiting for the crisis to subside. .
Fourth, states must demand more space to chart their own paths. There is enormous sub-national diversity in economic realities, health systems, and administrative capacity. Legally, states have a case. The Constitution places public health on the State List, while control of interstate transmission of epidemics is on the Concurrent List. While the Center has invoked the WFD, it is debatable whether the Center can replace states in an epidemic, especially since the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, empowers states to regulate activities to reduce virus transmission (and the Center to regulate the ports of entry) However, this space must be recovered; it will not yield easily.
Crises are often times when political fortunes are made or not made. Pressing the pause button in politics for too long would be reckless and unhealthy for the long-term outlook for Indian democracy.
Suyash Rai is a member of Carnegie India, New Delhi. Milan Vaishnav is a Senior Fellow and Director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC
The opinions expressed are personal.