Raw deal to States

When cooperation and trust are the keywords for governments in the fight against COVID, the ruling dispensation at the Centre has, against the principles of federalism, undermined even the State governments’ spaces for negotiation.

Published : Apr 28, 2020 07:00 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wearing a protective mask, chairs a meeting with Chief Ministers on COVID-19 lockdown via video conference on April 11.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wearing a protective mask, chairs a meeting with Chief Ministers on COVID-19 lockdown via video conference on April 11.

One of the key points that the historian Yuval Noah Harari stressed in his seminal essay “The World After Coronavirus” (published in March 2020) was the need to build “a spirit of global co-operation and trust” in order to make a concerted effort to overcome the unprecedented human crisis caused by COVID-19. “Countries should be willing to share information openly and humbly seek advice, and should be able to trust the data and the insights they receive,” he said. Later, talking to Indian audiovisual media, Harari pointed out that the attacks on the Muslim minority in the country on the basis of unfounded perceptions would only weaken the initiatives to overcome the crisis. In a larger sense, he was highlighting the distrust that prevailed in the Indian society, and this observation, inarguably, was an indirect message to the political dispensations of India to build societal trust. It was also a sort of reiteration of his message to “share information openly and humbly seek advice”. Seen from a national perspective, Harari’s message should function primarily at the level of the interactions between the Central and State governments and between various State governments.

However, as India goes through its second phase of lockdown—from April 14 to May 3—Harari’s insights seem to have met with mixed reactions among the political class. The spirit of sharing and acceptance is more often observed in the breach, especially by the Central government and its political leadership. In fact, a number of important steps taken by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in the second lockdown period clearly overlooked the pleas and demands from a number of States. Several State governments, including Kerala whose exemplary performance in combating COVID-19 has been acknowledged globally, pointed out that some of the Central government’s stipulations during the lockdown have done away with the space for negotiation and manoeuvres that existed for State governments before the crisis set in.

Violation of principles of federalism

A case in point several States have highlighted in this context is the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) announcements on April 17, which the political leadership of the government has touted as its second major drive to strengthen relief work and stimulate the economy. The Prime Minister was quick to laud it as something that would greatly enhance liquidity and improve credit supply, helping small businesses, farmers and the poor. RBI itself claimed that the move to increase the limits on the ways and means advances would help all States. But the response from State governments, including those led by BJP’s associates such as the Janata Dal (United) and its erstwhile partners like the Shiv Sena, did not reflect this optimism. The leaderships of these governments were of the view that the Centre’s measures were grossly inadequate and openly violated the powers vested in the States by the principles of federalism.

Kerala’s Finance Minister Thomas Isaac pointed out that the announcement meant that a State like Kerala would only get Rs.729 crore additionally as part of the ways and means advance. “Once drawn, this will have to be repaid quickly also. What we actually need are more substantiative fiscal relief measures such as waiving of agricultural loans and extended moratorium for other types of loans. The present moratorium of three months means nothing, as the interest will return and it would be of no use. Also, existing loans to all small traders and business should be restructured. These are the kind of concrete finance sector steps that we need. Instead, what we are getting is period rhetoric praising the people of the country, and at times the States, for observing lockdown without demur,” he said.

Many other opposition-led State governments have pointed to the Centre’s undermining of federalist principles amidst COVID relief activities. Leaders of these governments underscored the fact that subjects such as health, sanitation, testing, quarantine, relief—which are of great importance during the COVID crisis—are in the State List of the Constitution. But the Central government has prohibited State governments from borrowing to purchase equipment and machinery relating to COVID-19 relief. Former Union Minister and Senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram said that by this the Centre had assumed all powers and the States had been reduced to the status of supplicants. Letters of several Chief Ministers pleading for funds had gone unanswered for weeks, he said.

Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav spoke to Frontline on the unjustifiable restrictions on State expenditure in vital areas in the battle against COVID. “What we are seeing is absolutely pathetic crisis management, devoid of well-thought-out designs and plans as well as meticulous implementation on the ground. A sense of drift is the hallmark of the Union government as well as its replica in the country’s most populous State, Uttar Pradesh. In between, we are being made to witness rambling speeches accompanied by calls for dramatic performances from the powers that be. Real issues, obviously, get sidelined in this lackadaisical approach,” Akhilesh Yadav said.

Trolling Rahul Gandhi

Along with these transgressions at the level of governance, the ruling party’s politicking betrays rampant undermining of the spirit of sharing, seeking and acceptance. The treatment meted out by BJP leaders, including spokesperson Sambit Patra, as well as the troll armies of the BJP, to former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s press conference of April 16 show the levels to which the ruling dispensation and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar have sunk to in these times. Through the hour-long video press conference, Rahul Gandhi sought to make constructive suggestions, making it clear that he did not wish to engage in a political slugfest with the BJP. He said that though he did not agree with Prime Minister Modi on most things, now was the time to put differences aside. The Prime Minister, he said, “has a certain style of functioning, but we can find a way around it”.

Even in the face of a sensational question seeking to know whether he thought India’s democratic set-up would change in the post-coronavirus era, Rahul Gandhi responded saying “it could” but qualified the statement with this comment: “Don’t worry, we know how to make sure India is democratic but we need to fight the virus first….We can defeat the virus if we fight it together, we lose if we fight with each other.”

He then went on to flag a “two-flanked” strategy focussing on public health and the economy. On the health front, Rahul Gandhi asserted that the lockdown by itself was “not a solution” but was at best a “pause button” against the virus. He added that the country needed to ramp up testing and sought a course correction of the current strategy of “chasing the virus” by testing symptomatic patients to “pre-empting the virus” by random sampling. He also said that India’s current testing rate of “199 people per million of population or 350 tests per district” was “in no way enough” and cautioned that the virus would make its way back into the community once the lockdown was eased “if we do not put in place the resources and architecture to fight the virus strategically when it picks up again”.

On the economic front, his suggestion was to develop a “safety net” even as the battle on the health front was being carried out relentlessly. As part of this “safety net” he demanded higher amounts of cash transfer and universal public distribution of foodgrains to the marginalised and a special package for small and medium enterprises that would offer job security to India’s massive population of migrant workers. He also pointed to the callous treatment meted out to the migrant labourers in forcing them to take long and tortuous journeys on foot back to their native villages from the big cities they were employed in.

By any yardstick, Rahul Gandhi’s media interaction of April 16 had many pluses, both in the manner in which he steered clear of political sensationalism and how he delineated the terms of the concrete steps that the government should take in this hour of crisis. However, the BJP propaganda apparatus chose to ridicule Rahul Gandhi by drawing on the two words he had frequently used in the press conference —strategic and dynamic. Sambit Patra tweeted thus: “I like strategic laughing as we can create a positive atmosphere by raising both hands above the posture of laughing and talking about dynamically rolling on the floor.”

BJP general secretary B.L. Santhosh joined him in asking why the States ruled by the Congress chose to extend the lockdown even before the Centre announced it if Rahul Gandhi believed that the lockdown was not an effective tool to fight the virus. Evidently, these two leaders completely overlooked the larger points in terms of planning and detailing that Rahul Gandhi sought to make.

Several Congress leaders, including former Minister Manish Tewari, pointed out that the top brass of the BJP and the government had made fun of Rahul Gandhi’s warning of February 12 calling on the Centre to put in place necessary systems to combat the imminent dangers that the pandemic could pose to India, but the consequences of such contemptuous dismissal were evident to all now. “The BJP had accused him of spreading panic, senior Ministers at the Centre claimed there was no health emergency and the Sangh Parivar’s troll army called him all kinds of names. But now India is under an extended lockdown. Thousands have tested positive for the deadly virus and approximately 550 have succumbed to it till the 20th of April,” he said. Tewari added that what Rahul Gandhi had presented was a well-meaning and well-thought-out action plan, which the government should have accepted honourably. “Instead, what we have seen is unwarranted ridicule, which smacks of crass assertion of political power and sectarian political games,” he said.

Praise for Kerala

It looked as though three of Congress’ senior leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, have followed Harari’s prescription of “willingness to share and acceptance of advice” without sectarian considerations. Rahul openly praised the Left Democratic Front government, led by Pinarayi Vijayan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in Kerala as an exemplar in the fight against COVID-19 and practically dismissed the reservation his party colleagues in Kerala had expressed about the State government. Former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor also dismissed the criticisms against the State government and said repeatedly that its work was nothing short of a global model.

Chidambaram suggested to the Modi government that it should constitute a task force consisting of economists such as Raghuram Rajan, Arvind Panagariya, Esther Duflo, Arvind Subramanian, Himanshu, Jean Dreze, Sajjid Chinoy and Thomas Isaac.

Clearly, such bipartisan gestures do add value to Rahul Gandhi’s optimistic assertion about “knowing how to keep India democratic”, but he may have to drive home the same lessons to some of his colleagues in the Congress in Kerala, including seasoned leaders such as State party president Mullapally Ramachandran and Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala, who have embarked on a virulent and largely ludicrous campaign against the State government and its COVID-related initiatives. But even as this tragi-comedy unleashed by the Congress in Kerala continues apace, the deeply insidious and divisive agenda of the Sangh Parivar is also gathering greater momentum on the ground, especially across north Indian States. Undoubtedly, this developing situation underscores that the Indian democracy and the people who represent it have much work to do on the lines of Harari’s insightful and lucid thoughts on global cooperation based on human compassion and well-being.

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