As India enters day 17 of a nation-wide lockdown that began on March 25, three aspects of the Government of India's approach to dealing with the COVID-19 crisis has become increasingly clear.
The first is the absence of any real, strategic vision. The way the national lockdown became the agenda, in bits and pieces, the ensuing chaos after declaration, and continuing uncertainties and shortfalls as it proceeds, all point to a real lack of vision on how to deal with the crisis. For 72 hours after the lockdown began, the Centre had no clarity on what it meant by the phrase “essential services”.
The continuing absence of clarity on an overall economic crisis package, with no response or even acknowledgement of the flood of suggestions from experts and various stakeholders, makes this even more evident. Of course, the government is doing something, since something indeed has to be done, and there is a bureaucracy that can do something, after a fashion. If however, there is indeed an overall vision, even an evolving one, it remains remarkably well-hidden.
Secondly, it is the States that have to willy-nilly take the lead. Following on the stellar example of Pinarayi Vijayan, other state-level leaders are coping with the circumstances as best as they can. The states are leading by example, as happened even in the case of the national lockdown, with the Centre following suit, and grabbing headlines by converting state initiatives into central diktats. These diktats of course miss the nuances that state leaders have to take note of. Even in the withdrawal of the lockdown, it is the states that have to take the lead. This diktat making behaviour has been reinforced legally by invoking the Disaster Management Act, ostensibly to align the efforts of all states, but also curbing regional initiatives in many respects.
Mercifully for the nation, the majority of the country's metros and big urban centres appear to be with opposition parties who are locally in government. In a real sense, it is not Delhi, but the political Opposition that is bearing the brunt of dealing with the crisis at the front-lines. Not a single political leader who is seen leading from the front in this crisis, is from the BJP itself. Whether it is Pinarayi Vijayan, Uddhav Thackeray, Edappadi Palaniswami, Arvind Kejriwal, Ashok Singh Gehlot, Naveen Patnaik or even Chandrasekhara Rao and Mamata Banerjee, none are from the BJP. On the other hand, BJP-led states’ leaders have either not particularly distinguished themselves or have set the wrong kind of example, with the Goa Chief Minister, Pramod Sawant, setting a new record- low in insensitive governance. Despite this, the Prime Minister has taken his time in convening a meeting of all Opposition parties on the crisis, with no indication whether such consultations would be regular.
Finally, and the real key to the behaviour of the NDA government at the Centre, is that it appears mortally afraid that any mishandling of the pandemic crisis could rebound on its leadership politically. The top-most priority is accorded to keeping the PM insulated from direct responsibility for any decision. He never spells out details, never engages with the media directly. But then, as is only to be expected, this message goes down the line too. So no Minister, not even top level bureaucrats, are willing to take responsibility in direct and visible ways. It is left to a Joint Secretary to take the daily briefing with two or three similarly- placed officers. While some senior experts come out to defend the government's actions, their role in decision making is left un-transparent, taking away from the credibility and accountability of their defence. This, at a time, when the majority of world leaders routinely talk to their people in daily, exhaustive sessions, facing a range of questions from their immediate media audience.
For some time now, the States have been responsible for all implementation, detailing and for adding nuance to efforts around crisis management. But they have to do all this, with one arm tied behind their backs, as it were. Thus far, they have no clear idea about the long-term availability of resources, especially financial, and appear to making do on an ad-hoc basis. They have also to cope with the slow efforts of the Centre, beset by many errors of omission and commission, to increase physical availability of support and equipment. States also have to continually navigate Delhi’s regulatory and decision-making labyrinth, even in the midst of such a severe crisis. As if this were not enough, the partisan politics of the Centre vis-à-vis the States continues, not easing their way to access more financial resources, and even taking back the measly sums that their MPs would like to provide from their allocated funds for the constituents back home.
All this while the political leadership, like the unaccountable board of a family-run company, appears to be more focused on their pet predilections than on the larger good, even at the height of the crisis. Chief among these predilections is hanging on to their traditional, communally polarised support base. This remains the most important agenda for the political leadership in Delhi – after all, it is politics they know best. So, we have thali-banging and lamp lighting (Diwali like firecrackers included, and lock-down violating marches) and the communally-charged targeting of a single religious community as predominantly responsible for the recent spurt in the number of COVID-19 positive cases. The last instance is a nadir that many nations, even in these troubled times, have not quite reached. Unfortunately, all indication is that this political strategy is indeed paying some dividend, even in Opposition-ruled States.
Taken all together, it is indeed not a happy situation for the democratic and progressive alignment in the country. If the crisis fortuitously dissipates, the NDA government can, unfortunately, make out a case for good crisis management, even if it was not of their making. On the other hand, a further aggravation of the crisis will certainly expose the Centre's deep incapacity, but such exposure will come at a considerable cost in terms of lives and the welfare of the people at large. Fashioning a new, scientifically correct, politically enlightened and humane narrative of the COVID-19 crisis is something that the Opposition must urgently undertake, even as they stand with the people in dealing with one of the country’s most serious emergencies.
T. Jayaraman is Senior Fellow, Climate Change, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. The views are personal.