I would not be saying anything new when I say that the Covid-19 induced social and economic crisis is extraordinary, unprecedented and highly uncertain. The planet is grappling with this new global disorder that is changing the world in every possible way: the schools are now online, work meetings happen in pyjamas from the comfort of one’s homes, legal justice is now being done without robes and gavels (but not in undergarments, yet), the BJP and the opposition are not quarrelling over every other thing and millions of livelihoods are lost. While we are all battling this unique war, many interesting developments are happening in India’s political scene.Covid-19 is changing the Politics in India in multiple ways. In this article, I attempt to delve into some of the political developments happening in the country while the war on the virus and economic slowdown continue.
Cooperation, not Competition
The pan-India lockdown would be entering its fourth phase. People are rightfully concerned about the grave effects the massive loss of livelihoods can have on India’s low and middle-income groups. But the choices before the government are tough: choosing between saving lives and saving livelihoods, between adopting stringent measures to suppress the spread of the virus and allowing millions of Indians who are without jobs, money and food to work or return home. It reminds me of a sad quote by Woody Allen in Annie Hall, he said: “Life is divided into horrible and miserable”. At this point, it seems that the government is trying to make decisions to avoid the horrible and sustain the miserable.
In politics when leaders have to make such heavyweight decisions, opposition parties and governments more often than not resort to criticism and nit-picking. There is a hot competitive spirit among the parties. In India, more than 50% of the States are ruled by non-BJP parties which means cooperation between the State and the Central governments is, to say, difficult. Yet the most heartwarming and surprising element of India’s response to Covid-19 has been the close collaboration between the States and the Centre.
Partisan politics is the norm in India, no one expects Mamata Banerjee to allow Central government officials to force her to ‘appropriate’ the death numbers of her state and not make a noise. The way in which states like Kerala, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Punjab etc. have respected the Centre’s decisions and worked with it is highly appreciable. If they have raised issues and concerns that have been done not as an attack on the Central Government or its leadership but only to address the best interests of their States or the country. There have been more than three press-conferences between the Prime Minister and all the CMs of States and Union Territories and everyone seems to be supporting each other. This change of collaborative politics is a lovely welcome to India’s throat-cutting national political scene. If India wishes to effectively and strongly battle this crisis this collaboration-cooperation is necessary. It is actually the only way forward especially when the virus respects no borders. This is not to say that there is a newfound love between the arch-rivals. But perhaps they have pushed aside their differences and postponed the political competition for later to tackle the bigger and mightier problem.
The changing Federal Fabric
Can you remember the last time the Central government was as overpowering as it is now, with the State governments in almost complete surrender? Perhaps many decades ago when Indira Gandhi ruled with an iron hand and the majority of the states were Congress-ruled. But, India has come a long way since then. Our federal structure has evolved in the last forty years or so: with the rise of regional parties and strengthening of Constitutional ideals of decentralisation and federalism. The days of the all-powerful and almighty Centre have long gone. State governments do assert their power and may even ruthlessly protest against the Central government. Remember the time when non-BJP States in collective defiance, stated that they would not allow the Central government to implement it’s star-program ‘NRC’ in their States?
India’s first far-reaching response to the Coronavirus was the 21-day national lockdown imposed by the Central government under the National Disaster Management Act. The Central government has decided to use this Act and issue a series of Executive decrees without any involvement of Parliament or State legislature. The Central government enjoys such immense powers after declaring a ‘National Emergency’, unfortunately, India has no provisions for declaring a public health emergency. Yet the Executive has seized for itself wide powers making use of the ambiguous and vague interpretation of the NDMA and the Epidemic Disease Act. The Centre is calling all the shots, the buck stops there with respect to everything: it imposed a national-level lockdown (without any consultations with the State government), it announced a national-level liquor ban(even when states have the power to tax alcohol sale), it formulated guidelines for the lockdown for the whole country(states were given minimal powers to regulate lockdown measures in their territories), it seized MPLADS funds(without any discussion in parliament), it’s making the state governments pay for train and bus fares for migrants, etc. It is important to note here that public health, public order and concerns of local-daily administration are issues that fall under States’ jurisdiction.
The imposition of lockdown measures means many sources of State revenue are dwindling which makes it heavily relied on the Centre for relief funds and support. It is the Central government that has full control over the utilisation of funds under PM CARES and there’s no disclosure of how these funds are being utilised. The Central government is visibly using the law, which was supposed to help governments deal with multistate disasters to interfere and overrule state-level efforts to manage the situation. The straining federal relationship was summed up in a remark made by Punjab CM Capt. Amrinder Singh, the Centre should let the States do their job, fill up the commas and full stops of policymaking as they know what’s best for their States.
In fighting this virus it is the State governments that are expected to be at the battlefront, making decisions for themselves as per parochial situations and conditions. But instead, it seems that the Central government is acting in place for them sidelining all rules of federal power-sharing. It is surprising that even when State governments have been stripped of their powers to take decisions and manage their finances not many are calling it out loudly. The States are indeed asking for help- from requesting that donations to the CM Relief Fund be considered as CSR to more availability of testing kits and PPE for health workers; from relaxations in fiscal deficit norms to the payment of compensation under the GST regime; from a greater economic package for diverse sectors to financial support for states; from asking for more funds and decision-making power to facilitating the transfer of migrant workers. But how much is the Centre listening to these voices?
These are unusually extraordinary times which will eventually pass. The over-centralisation of powers is a characteristic of emergencies and disasters like this pandemic. It is happening globally. The Centre is considered to be responsible and more equipped to take control. It is expected to take the lead and coordinate efforts among the States. The pandemic and Modi’s popularity has given a moral and somewhat legal justification for this changing structure of Centre-State relations. But, one must not forget that the robustness of our politics depends on cooperative federalism and not a domineering Central leadership. India’s history of an all-powerful Centre and ‘ Indira is India, India is Indira’ sets an alarming tone for the future: will Modi’s powerful Centre only be a benevolent enabler or would lead to the emergence of a new federal order? I would agree with Winston Churchill when he said “Never let a good crisis go waste” but in the name of managing the crisis, the Centre should not effectively use the legal mechanisms and situational opportunity to control the otherwise functional state governments. Governments that are stable enough to cope with the disaster and effective enough to coordinate efforts on their own. Some might argue that is too sceptical an approach to view ‘Politics, Covid-19 and India’ but perhaps only the future will tell.