How India was ruled in 2020
The Indian governance paradigm has often worked in a somewhat paradoxical way on the ground. On the one hand, the State is very present in the regulation of daily life, but on the other, the State is usually absent, leaving citizens to their fate to survive.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought these two characteristics to the forefront in 2020, marking both the absolute centrality of the state and its staggering absence. And it was between these two extremes that citizens had to find a way to navigate the most devastating pandemic in a century.
First, the presence of the State.
If there were any doubts about how government and politics affect your life, 2020 should dispel all doubts. And this is not necessarily a negative feature, as governments that failed to fulfill their responsibilities at a time of serious health and economic emergency saw adverse results. The United States is a prime example of this grave irresponsibility.
In India, it was the state that decided that the country would be blockaded to stop the spread of the pandemic; decided that national and international travel would be prohibited; decided which organizations and units, such as “essential services”, could continue to function and which would close; decided how educational institutions would function and when examinations would take place for millions of students from schools to colleges; it determined when mobility would be allowed and when it would be restricted.
But it was not just the way of living that was dictated by the decisions of the political leadership and the bureaucracy. It was the way in which the health and economic emergency was dealt with. The State decided what would be the test protocol for citizens for Covid-19, who would be prioritized in terms of treatment, what would be the form of differential treatment, who was admitted to hospitals and who should wait. It increased health infrastructure (critics have pointed out this was delayed and India shouldn’t have had such a shortage of hospital beds, personal protective equipment, ventilators in the first place) and is now close to determining which vaccines would get approved and which ones. citizens will have access to vaccines first. It is the State that decides the nature and sequence of economic relief, providing free rations and cash assistance to those it identifies as vulnerable, credit to the sectors that it believes most need it, and formulating rules and regulations on the type of economic activity that be allowed.
And thus, 2020 was the year that it became clear that the governance structure in India was an integral part of everyday life in a way that citizens may have never experienced before. The governments of India are extraordinarily powerful: a moment of crisis like the one presented by the pandemic allows them to exercise this power and make decisions with long-term implications. Within the state, it is the Center that remains much more powerful than the states, the executive that remains much more powerful than the legislative or judicial, and often the local bureaucracy that is more powerful than local elected institutions. In 2020, the state also demonstrated that its coercive power was firmly intact, based on a degree of democratic consent and voluntary cooperation from citizens; Only this combination of coercion, consent and voluntarism could have helped maintain the blockade for as long as it lasted.
But there was another side to the Indian governance story of 2020: the lives of citizens were not only marked by the presence, but also by the absence, of the state.
The enduring memory of the Indian pandemic will not actually be the images of hospitals or testing labs. It will not be the data point of more than 10 million people infected during the year. It will be the image of citizens – millions of India’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens – walking hundreds of miles, on the roads, with their families, grabbing their insignificant belongings, surviving on a meal or two for days, to return home. . It will be the story of the largest internal migration the country has witnessed in decades, if not since Partition. And there was only one reason for it: the fact that for these millions of citizens, it was not the sarkar, the government, but their samaj, the community, at home that inspired hope.
The government, to be fair, had a genuine dilemma: allow people to return to their homes and risk spreading the infection, or try to confine people wherever they were at the time the shutdown started. The state leaned toward the latter option, but did little to assure citizens that it would provide the security, both emotional and financial, that required them to stay away from their homes at a time of great panic. At the time, this was not sustainable and citizen pressure meant that 36 days after the shutdown, the government had to open trains to allow migrants to return home. It would always be a blot on the record of the Indian state that this indecision, poor planning and late execution meant a large-scale exodus of citizens in distressing circumstances from the cities of India, particularly in the west and south and urban centers like Delhi, to the interior of northern and eastern India.
While the State was present in regards to providing rations, free gas cylinders, income assistance, additional employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and ensuring the portability of the ration card (after long overdue), he was absent when he came to put money where he said he would. As Avani Kapur of the Center for Policy Research has shown, in many key areas, public spending in India declined in this crucial period. The fiscal stimulus was less of a stimulus and more of a credit guarantee scheme. The problem of low demand persisted, which in turn had a negative multiplier effect by altering the profitability of companies, supply chains and livelihoods. And the government’s conservative fiscal stance, despite assurances that it would not take a tough stance on the deficit, continued to keep the economy tied to the spending capacity of the private sector. Those in the private sector who survived, and even flourished, did so because disruption made their sectors even more crucial (think digital services) or because of liquidity infusion into the markets or because of severe pay cuts. The government could do little with those who lost in this process of destruction, which was not so creative.
2020 highlighted both the strength and the weakness of India’s governance structures. The state is powerful. The State can achieve what would seem unattainable if it puts political will, coercive instruments, resources and energy to achieve a specific goal. But this is also a state that is often unable to anticipate the hopes and fears of its citizens, plan accordingly, and provide the cushion it needed to help indigenous people through difficult times.