- Opportunity for both the government and opposition
Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic has the potential of redefining the rules and the balance of power in the international system and national politics. The scale of the pandemic, the national lockdown, the economic crisis it has already generated, and the fact that every citizen — irrespective of class, caste, geography, gender, age, religion — is affected, admittedly to varying degrees, makes Covid-19 the most significant event in recent Indian history. If society is affected, and if the economic structure is altered, it cannot but have an impact on the way political competition takes place, and on the political choices people make in the months and years ahead. This crisis may force both the political system and citizens to recognise that issues such as health cannot be marginal, but are central. The Covid-19 has now shown the indispensability of public health systems and the need to invest in a more healthy society and prepare better. No national election in India has been fought on education or health or social safety; voters have not decided their choices based on which party promises to invest more funds in building State capacity. But it is hard to imagine that in the future, political parties can go to voters without an agenda on health — or that citizens will not demand better services. However, the entire episode will strengthen Indian federalism. The role of state governments has been critical in the battle against Covid-19. The constitutional division of powers has meant that not all decisions happen at the same time, slowing down responses in different geographies. Some states have done better than others. There have been coordination issues between the Centre and states and among states. But the crisis has brought home the indispensability of India’s federal compact. A centralised, unitary structure would have struggled even more to deal with the emerging realities, given India’s spread, and specific local realities. The fact that there is an administrative apparatus that percolates down to grassroots, through state governments and Panchayats, has helped and will be an asset in this long battle.
Challenges and opportunities in Indian politics
Nobody knows better than Narendra Modi that crisis is opportunity. Covid-19 is similarly a political opportunity for Narendra Modi. And luck often favours him. If he can bring India out of this crisis relatively less affected than the West, he will be even stronger than he became after 23rd May. He will have a lot more political capital to pursue the Hindutva agenda and ignore the economic slump. But it’s early days. It won’t be until a few weeks that we can get a sense about whether India ducked the coronavirus or whether the inevitable happens. Meanwhile, the Modi propaganda machinery is already doing its best to keep his voters assured that he’s using his supernatural powers to defeat the virus:
In addition, how India manages Covid-19 will be the defining legacy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is no longer Kashmir or the Ram temple or the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or welfare measures or demonetisation or Goods and Services Tax that will be the dominant element in how Modi is remembered in history. To be sure, these issues matter — and may even play a partial role in electoral outcomes and have long-term consequences. But it is whether India manages to minimise the fallout of the pandemic, with limited cases and casualties, or succumbs to it on a mass scale, with a devastating loss of lives, that will be the central element of Modi’s prime ministership. It is whether India manages to, in the wake of the health crisis, reduce the economic consequences, provide social security support and rebuild its core sectors — or whether it enters a long period not just of contracted growth but perhaps even sustained recession that will define Modi’s governance record. If he manages to lead India out of this pandemic relatively successfully, Modi will have sealed not just the 2024 election — but etched his name as a heroic, almost war-time, Prime Minister.
The public will now test Narendra Modi on three counts: response to the pandemic, the health infrastructure at large, and the state of the Indian economy. On all three fronts, the opposition has a big window of opportunity, which will last at least a few weeks if not a few months. For the most part, the Congress party’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has come across as mature, its opposition constructive. It is criticising the Modi government’s follies and yet not appearing to be Pavlovian in its criticism.
Changing significance of State and politics
The crisis will strengthen the power of the Indian State. It has shown that at a time of grave public emergency, the government is essential. Many fervent supporters of free markets have often argued for the retreat of the State and confining it to essential law and order functions, while leaving the private sector to take over other functions. This never happened in India, even though liberalisation opened up key sectors, rightly, for private sector participation. And private sector firms, including in health care, have a role in battling Covid-19. But above all, it is the government that is at the heart of the response. From getting Indians from abroad back home to determining the duration of a lockdown and implementing it, from deciding on the testing strategy for Covid-19 to embarking on extensive contact tracing of all those possibly infected, from allocating funds to ramp up health infrastructure to announcing relief measures for the economically disadvantaged, from leveraging private sector support to representing India’s point of view internationally, it is the State which is responding to the crisis. All these measures are legal and necessary, but they will enhance its power and role beyond the crisis. The era of big government is set to return.
Also an opening opportunity for Opposition
In comparison to Modi the crisis of Covid-19 is an even greater opportunity for the opposition. To begin with, the crisis has turned the page on Hindutva, at least for now. The opposition no longer has the excuse that it is unable to appeal to a majority of voters just because they are being given a regular dose of intoxicating Hindutva. The public will now test Narendra Modi on three counts: response to the pandemic, the health infrastructure at large, and the state of the Indian economy. On all three fronts, the opposition has a big window of opportunity, which will last at least a few weeks if not a few months. For the most part, the Congress party’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has come across as mature, its opposition constructive. It is criticising the Modi government’s follies and yet not appearing to be Pavlovian in its criticism. It is coming across as trying to solve a grave problem rather than score political brownie points and bring down Narendra Modi. This is unlike how we have seen the Congress party — and indeed, the wider opposition — respond since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014. From demonetisation and lynching to GST and NRC, the opposition came across as unsure of its own position, attacking Modi but unable to find a voice that would appeal to the people. That cognitive dissonance could change if the opposition continues its mature response and remembers that its focus is to convince the masses that it can do a better job of governance than the current dispensation. While the Congress old guard may think their party’s former president needs to go easy on low-level Modi-bashing at a time of national crisis, it is a sign of Rahul Gandhi’s maturity that he welcomes an economic package by the government like a constructive opposition leader. Modi’s ratings now depend heavily on his managing the health crisis, but as the Hindutva agenda is side-stepped, the opposition has a new opening.
The author is a professor at and head of the department of Political Science at B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura. He can be reached at [email protected]