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Opinion

HTLS 2020: the Covid-19 pandemic and the change in national policy

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Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been considerable commentary on its impact on geopolitics, the economy, and the role of technology. But these impacts are intertwined with the way nations and societies are dealing with the pandemic. It will soon be one year since the pandemic broke out. The track record of countries and different political systems in dealing with its aftermath is now reasonably clear. We can make some broad assessments of how the pandemic is and will change politics in countries around the world, and the Indian case is of particular interest.

Around the world, the pandemic has significantly enhanced the power of the state vis-à-vis its citizens. Big government is back with a vengeance and this is unlikely to change even as the pandemic recedes. More state intervention will be required, for example in the distribution of vaccines. The economic recovery phase will also require more state intervention and this is already evident in the economic stimulus packages introduced in many states, including India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of “minimum government and maximum governance” has had a short lifespan. But while government expansion is a reality, governance is still far from “maximum”. The record in this regard remains uneven.

The pandemic has altered the relationship between the Center and the states and other constituent units, vastly increasing the authority of the Center at the latter’s expense even in federal dispensations. In India, the pandemic allowed the central government to take several steps beyond its strictly constitutional limits. The crisis nature of the pandemic stifled resistance even from states ruled by parties outside the BJP. The huge impact on the sources of revenue available to the states and the Center’s reluctance to meet its commitments to offset losses incurred in GST collections have upset the balance of power between the Center and the states, greatly increasing dependence on the latter from the Center to maintain financial viability. The Union government has used its strengthened authority to push through some major reforms in agriculture, education and health, which are typically state issues and encountered only limited and sporadic opposition. Post-pandemic India will likely remain a more unitary state in practice, regardless of constitutional properties. But this also sows the seeds of future tensions in the center-state and of the incipient “fisiparous tendencies”, a term that used to be heard in the early days of our republic.

There has been a weakening of democratic politics around the world even before the pandemic, fueled by increasing inequalities, technological change, and the spread of nationalist and populist sentiments. Globalization led to significant increases in wealth and income around the world, but the absence of adequate public policies to ensure an equitable distribution created a small group of winners and a much larger number of those left behind. This undermined popular interest in democracy and left the door open for populist leaders to preach deglobalization and populist policies. The success of authoritarian dispensations, particularly China, in generating rapid growth and higher standards of living, posited another model of socio-economic development. China’s ability to end the pandemic and ensure an early economic recovery has further boosted the authoritarian brand. This weakening of democracy as we know it, the preference for strong and decisive authoritarian leadership figures, despite their flaws, is likely to persist. Liberal democracy has lost its brand equity under Donald Trump in the United States, perhaps damaging it irrevocably. Joe Biden will have a hard time restoring his shine. There is pessimism about democracy and more so in democratic countries. In India too there is impatience with more measured and relatively mild forms of constitutional democracy and consensus politics. There is a greater acceptance of coercive policy as a means of overcoming resistance to change. But I believe that the immense diversity and deep-rooted individuality of spirit of India will eventually frustrate the imposed policy of centralization and uniformity. This is a country that cannot be governed through a monochrome framework.

The peculiar nature of the pandemic that privileges social distancing and remote work has greatly accelerated the adoption of digital technologies. This is affecting the way in which the economies of the future will be structured and the ways of living and working will change, but in what way and to what degree it remains uncertain and unpredictable. This will also change the policy. It is clear that states are already embracing these new technologies for more intrusive surveillance of the lives of their citizens while resisting scrutiny of their own conduct. But theoretically, I see that the same technologies provide citizens with the tools to achieve transparency and accountability in state action, although this may happen with a time delay or perhaps never. The state will resist this and the national security subpoena has already become a convenient argument to remain opaque. In India, too, security trumps almost all attempts to scrutinize state action and ensure democratic accountability.

The strengthened state authority can create a solidarity state, which better responds to the interests of its citizens. It can deploy its increased powers to undertake long-pending economic and social reforms, viewing the crisis as an opportunity. Perhaps we will eventually create a more pleasant scenario for sustainable democracy. Hope must be maintained.

Shyam Saran is Former Foreign Secretary and Senior CPR Fellow

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