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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 24, New Delhi, May 29, 2021

Is National Government the way out to deal with Covid-19? | P S Jayaramu

Saturday 29 May 2021

by P. S Jayaramu

Without doubt, the Covid-19 pandemic is the greatest national human disaster faced by India in the post- independence era. In meeting the challenge, the Central Government has regrettably failed in many respects. Many analysts and Opposition Parties have criticised the Modi Government on several grounds. Of late, we are reading about the simmering discontent among senior members of the Government as well as the BJP’s parent body the RSS, as is evident from the concluding speech delivered by its Chief Mohan Bhagwat in the ‘Positivity Unlimited’ conclave organised by it recently. Bhagwat chose his words carefully and blamed the Government, the bureaucracy and the citizens as a whole for their laxity in meeting the second Covid surge. It is reported in sections of the media that at a recent meeting attended by the national General Secretary of the RSS, Dattatreya Hosabale, BJP Party President J. P. Nadda, Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Modi, the matter came up for detailed discussion, not so much for the inept handling of the crisis, but its likely negative impact on the U P elections scheduled for February 2024.The dumping of dead bodies in the Ganga river and the highly negative popular perception it is having on the voters in Uttar Pradesh worried those present at the meeting. The need for reaching out to the people to assuage their feelings was highlighted by the Party President with appeals to party workers to reach out to the Covid affected people with medicines and other requirements, specially at the rural level. That the leaders took the popular discontent seriously is seen from the decision not to celebrate the 2nd anniversary of the Modi Government, which in normal circumstances would have been a political extravaganza.

It is against this reality that we need to ponder over the suggestion being made in certain quarters for the setting up of a national government to effectively meet the challenge. While there is no history of a national government being in place in India, the idea as such requires a willingness on the part of the government of the day to execute it. A national government if it is constituted will require representatives of the key opposition parties to be taken into it to facilitate consensus based policy decisions to handle the pandemic, which in effect will deprive the Opposition to find fault with the government as its representatives would be part of the decisions. India’s political culture and the traditions our political leaders have established and are pursuing makes the idea very much an ideal . The Political class in India are known for practising partisan political ends even during crisis situations like the one we are faced with. The government, in such situations, would like to somehow pull through the crisis and present the outcome as its achievement to be voted back to power again. With Modi presiding over a one party government, ( it is NDA government only in name) and known for his authoritarian style of governance, not having addressed even a single press conference in the last seven years, it is anything but realistic to expect him to make way for or head a national government. The opposition parties too in India are not in favour of a national government as they would not like to lose be opportunity to pin down the government, nay capitalise on it, for political/electoral purposes. This being the stark political reality, the national government idea remains at best an academic project projected by arm chair scholars and journalist pundits.

Need For An All Party Meeting:

The more realistic alternative before the Modi Government is to at once call an all Party meeting on the Covid situation, explain to the leaders of the Opposition its perception of the dimensions of the challenge, appraise them of its ongoing strategies to meet the crisis, sincerely incorporate the suggestions of the Opposition leaders in its overall plan of action. The Prime Minister should come out of his echo chamber, set aside his ego and be open mindead enough to arrive at a consensus based blueprint to deal with the severity of the second wave of the Corona virus and more so to prepare his government to handle the challenges likely to emerge during the projected third wave and possibly the successor waves.

It is also incumbent on the Prime Minister to involve his senior colleagues in the handling of the Covid challenge and not just confine the issue to the PMO only as there are reliable reports that in the cabinet meetings that have taken place during the last few months, the Covid issue was not on the agenda at all. Reports of cabinet deciding on other matters like disinvestment and investment in metro projects in States are in the public domain. As suggested by the BJP MP Dr. Subramaniam Swamy, the Prime Minister may consider entrusting Covid management task to Nitin Gatkari, who has a track record of delivering things within stipulated time frame. He may be given freedom to choose his officers and allowed to function in an independent manner by coordinating with experts and officers belonging to the Centre and States.

Reportedly, the virtual meetings the Prime Minister has had with the Chief Ministers of States have been largely monologues with instructions being dished out to them on what is to be done to deal with the situation. The recent meeting of the PM with District Collectors was resented by many Chief Ministers as a violation of the existing constitutional and administrative arrangement, where the CMs address the DIstrict Collectors to appraise them about implementation of decisions. The PM’s meeting though served a certain purpose, smacks of his rather condescending attitude towards elected Chief Ministers.

At a more substantial level, the Modi Government will have to follow a judicious mix of centralisation and decentralisation. Centralisation is essential in matters of procurement of vaccines from both domestic manufacturers and from those abroad. The decision of vaccine makers from the US like Pffizer and Moderna that they would only deal with the Government of India in matters of supply of vaccines unserscroes my point. States placing orders with domestic makers too has led to delays in the supply of vaccines to them. Centralised procurement and supplies to States to pursue decentralised distribution with in their jurisdiction is the realistic way forward. Centralisation also needs to be pursued by the Modi Government in terms of fixing of uniform prices of the vaccines.

Listen To Expert Advice:

More than anything else, being an elected head of the government, Prime Minister Modi should attach significance to the advice of health and other technical experts periodically while arriving at decisions relating to Covid management. That the Government did not heed the warnings of experts about the emergence of the second wave, obsessed as it was with assembly elections, specially in West Bengal, speaks volumes about the sufferings of the ordinary citizens in terms of loss of lives of very high magnitude. The experts on their part should render their advice without fear or favour, specially the ones from the Niti Ayog. The least that is expected of them is to provide post facto justifications for the actions of the government.

In conclusion it can only be reiterated that consensus based decision making, according primacy to the advice of independent expert and not narrow political considerations/ pay offs should be the prime drivers in meeting the humongous challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi.)

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