In the build up to the 2019 general elections, the BJP’s most potent campaign plank was to pose a direct question: ‘Modi versus who?’. By foregrounding the leadership issue, the BJP was able to successfully make the elections a quasi-presidential battle in which a fractious and divided opposition had little chance. Now, nearly a year later, the Covid-19 crisis may have provided a glimpse to leadership options in the future: the chief ministers of 28 states and eight union territories are at the frontline of the corona virus battle.
Never before in the history of post-independent India has an emergency-like situation existed across so many states, forcing the chief ministers and their state administrations to stand up to be counted. In the past, individual states have suffered from natural calamities, from floods to drought to a tsunami, but for the first time the collective will of India’s states is being tested. In a sense, the crisis is a reminder that real power and responsibility does not vest in Delhi but in state capitals. A Modi-centric political universe is being finally forced to acknowledge the existence of a diverse range of leaders.
Take for example the Maharashtra chief minister, Uddhav Thackeray. Lacking his father’s charisma or any administrative experience, he was widely perceived as an ‘accidental’ chief minister when he took over last November. Less than six months later, Thackeray has become the ‘face’ of Maharashtra’s fight against corona, his daily addresses on Marathi news television standing out for their calm and assured presence in an age where panic seems only a remote control button away. That he has spoken out firmly against any attempt to communalise the spread of the virus is a reflection of the distance the Shiv Sena has now travelled under his leadership: don’t forget the Mumbai police did not allow a Tableeghi Jamaat convention near Mumbai in early March in stark contrast to the Delhi police’s abdication of duty. If the corona positive numbers in Maharashtra are higher, it is a consequence of more rigorous testing and Mumbai being a social contact hub for travelers from India and across the world.
Take also Pinarayi Vijayan, the Kerala chief minister and the man in charge of the last left citadel in the country. Until now, Vijayan’s image was of a local political strongman with limited mass connect. The corona crisis has revealed him to be a hands-on politician with a firm grasp over the administration. Then, be it an economic package for the poor, setting up testing facilities in the hot-spot districts, or even imposing a lockdown, Kerala has been ahead of the national agenda. That the state has a long tradition of investing in public health services has been an undoubted advantage but Vijayan’s own contribution as a tough, no-nonsense leader cannot be minimized.
Indeed, across the political divide, different states have shown the capacity to rise upto the challenge. In Punjab, for example, Capt Amarinder Singh, has made a special effort to ensure that the state’s large migrant labour population is given enough financial support to stay back on the fields ahead of the harvest season. In UP, Yogi Adityanath was one of the first to assure a guaranteed income to daily wage labourers and marginal farmers. In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has gone ahead with plans to set up a large, fully equipped Covid hospital. In Chhatisgarh, Bhupesh Baghel has ensured extra ration for all while in Rajasthan, the Ashok Gehlot government moved swiftly to contain the outbreak in Bhilwara. In Delhi, the Kejriwal government has initiated mass scale random testing and provided quality medical facilities in state government hospitals. Assam’s Sonowal government has been quick to scale up its medical preparedness while in Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s ‘Sufalbangla’ scheme has ensured vegetable prices are kept in check.
This special focus on chief ministers to deliver also underscores the urgent need to re-orient Centre-state relations in the corona age. The ‘Delhi knows best’ mindset has long plagued the bureaucracy and political order, creating a highly centralized system of decision-making. In the Modi years, major decisions, be it de-monetisation or annulling Article 370, have been taken with minimal consultation and maximum disruption, a ‘command and control’ approach that does not tolerate alternate opinion. A ‘war-like’ situation like corona demands a fundamental change in style: a need for constant interaction with stakeholders in a spirit of genuine partnership where collaboration replaces unilateralism, where the focus shifts from an individual’s personality cult to the collective effort, where optics like Taali-Thali or ‘diya jalao’ don’t allow symbolism to take over from substance.
Today, each state is in desperate need of extra funds and a relaxation in fiscal limits. Even the Goods and Services Tax model – pitched as an exemplar of a re-set in centre-state relations – is now under scrutiny with many states complaining that they haven’t received pending GST compensation. There is also the necessity for an effective nationwide protocol where the union health ministry and apex bodies like the Indian Council of Medical Research work in close conjunction with state governments and local institutes: many state governments privately complain that the decision-making on crucial issues like permissions for testing in private labs and ensuring swifter delivery of Personal Protective Equipment for health workers has been tangled in a bureaucratic maze. This at a time when a rapid and clear-headed response is a critical element in the battle.
This is where prime minister Modi, himself a former chief minister, needs to step in and lead the way. As Gujarat chief minister, Mr Modi would often complain of how state autonomy was being compromised by a dominant Centre. And yet, the prime minister held his first meeting with the chief ministers only on March 20th when the corona positive cases in the country had already crossed 200; five days later, a national lockdown was put in place at four hours notice without the chief ministers allegedly being provided prior information. When the prime minister announced a ‘nine minutes lights off’ campaign last week, none of the chief ministers or state power ministers were taken into confidence. When the initial financial package was announced for several affected groups, there was again little attempt made to consult with state finance ministers. It is only now, in the last few days, that the prime minister has initiated a dialogue with opposition party leaders on corona, a step which should have ideally been taken weeks ago when parliament was in session. Then, Mr Modi chose to address the nation directly through a television address when propriety demanded that he first take parliament into confidence.
When he first came to power, Mr Modi spoke of himself as captain of ‘Team India’ and of the need to replace excessive centralism with ‘co-operative federalism’. This is the moment for him to walk the talk: build a ‘National Task Force’ comprising chief ministers, opposition leaders, domain experts come together to fight corona collectively. The General must lead the war effort but this time each brigade commander must get their due: Brand Modi must play second fiddle to Team India.
Post-script: While most chief ministers have shown the way, a few have also been exposed. In Goa, for example, chief minister Pramod Sawant interpreted the lockdown as a diktat for a complete shutdown of all shops, thereby plunging the state into chaos over essential food supplies. When he did finally open the grocery stores, it came with a warning: ‘Don’t blame me now if the virus spreads!’ Surely Goans, like all Indians, deserve a more rational and empathetic leadership in troubled corona times.