How the BJP has Milked COVID-19
The NDA government has used a pandemic to circumscribe opposition, undermine India’s federal structure and prioritised the symbolic over the substantive.
May 30, 2020
Rahm Emanuel once argued that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before”. This aptly describes what’s happening in India, as also in other nations. I have argued elsewhere that the lockdowns enforced to control the Corona pandemic are being systematically (mis)used by autocrats to impose dramatic political changes and further cement themselves. These tectonic shifts could potentially kickstart a systemic churning that reshapes the entire world.
Case in point is the manner in which the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has surreptitiously ramrodded far-reaching policy changes in India. This has happened in tranches, from the set of measures taken before Prime Minister Modi’s speech on May 12, the Reserve Bank of India’s liquidity measures over the last two months and the Atmanirbhar Bharat Economic Package (ABE) announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman over the last few days. Rather than alleviating any of the socio-economic problems India faces (either emanating from the pandemic or from earlier), these measures accomplish only four things- they circumscribe the political opposition, undermine India’s federal architecture, outsource the government’s welfare functions, and prioritise the symbolic.
Firstly, sweeping policy changes (ranging from the abrogation of labour laws, privatisation of almost all national assets etc.) have been announced without Parliamentary debate or even the pretence of consulting opposition parties. This is symptomatic of the NDA’s consistent disdain for parliamentary processes, given it has ramrodded bills through as money bills, bypassed Parliament through ordinances, introduced and passed critical bills on the same day, and ignored Standing Committees consisting of all parties.
These changes come soon after the NDA’s arbitrary suspension of the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MP-LADs) which also circumscribes opposition legislators. It has been conclusively demonstrated that “while MPs in the ruling dispensation will continue to get work in their constituencies sanctioned, by virtue of their proximity to the Executive, opposition MPs will not”. More recently, the Uttar Pradesh government denied permission for buses to transport migrants back to their respective homes simply because they were arranged by the Indian National Congress Party. In combination with its earlier authoritarian proclivities (destabilising elected governments, interfering in the functioning of opposition-governed states through governors, undermining the Election Commission etc.), these recent incidents involving the NDA signal India’s accelerated slide towards a single party polity.
Undermining India’s Federal Structure:
Secondly, the NDA has also sounded the death knell for India’s federal structure. The first nail in its coffin was that the lockdown was announced without consulting state governments. Ironically, Prime Minister Modi addressed the SAARC nations, radio anchors, and sportspersons before he deigned to speak to, or consult with Chief Ministers. When he finally did, not all chief ministers were given a chance to speak, necessitating another meeting. The second nail in India’s federalism was that the union government has saddled the entire onus of enforcing and managing the lockdown on states. This is extremely problematic because the 55-day lockdown has dried up all sources of revenues for the states (fuel, excise, alcohol, land etc.), while the centre has still not transferred the Goods and Services Tax (GST) compensation cess due to the states* This further constricts the fiscal room states have to manoeuvre. After all, the NDA had arbitrarily decided to illegally withhold funds for central sector schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi-National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (the NDA withheld thousands of crores due to states for wage payments for work done) and the Post Matric Scholarship (the NDA withheld Rs. 13,000 crores of scholarships to Dalit and Adivasi students across India). The combined stress has left states nearly bankrupt.
Even though the borrowing limits of state governments have been increased from three to five percent of GSDP, these monies are subject to the states fulfilling exacting conditions related to ration cards, ease of doing business, power distribution and urban local revenues. As a result, states will be increasingly beholden to the centre. Their welfare agendas will have to align with the centre’s. This is worrisome because empirically the one size fits all formula does not work in India, which boasts of so many regional diversities. But more troublingly, this will enable the NDA to interfere in the functioning of state governments further accentuating a trend it established with Governors imposing the BJP’s diktats on state governments. In treating states like vassals, rather than democratic elected governments, the NDA is provoking centrifugal forces which could seriously threaten the integrity of the nation-state.
Outsourcing Government’s Welfare Functions:
Thirdly, it is constitutionally established that it is the State’s primary responsibility to effectively address any problem the nation faces. Even though the State may involve non governmental organisations in helping conceive policies and executing them, it cannot outsource its responsibilities. And yet, undermining this (and flouting the rules of the lockdown), the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)’s national executive unilaterally announced that workers of its ideological parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) would help families in need throughout the lock-down and even help in enforcing the lockdown. Make no mistake- this is not some altruistic decision. This is a calculated move designed to maximise political benefits to party cadre; to entrench them in communities in time for the next round of elections. While every other political party is technically free to do the exact same thing, reports have emerged that both political parties and activists have not been allowed to do so citing the lockdown.
The BJP has no right to circumscribe the State to further its partisan agenda. This leads to diminished institutional capacity and consequently lack of adherence to established protocols and norms. This is precisely what has happened with the Reserve Bank of India, with the NITI Ayog, with almost every bank, with Parliament etc. This portends grave consequences for our democracy.
The Triumph of the Symbolic:
Finally, the BJP has time and again prioritised the symbolic over the substantive. Malcolm X once said that “when ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we’, even illness becomes wellness”. But India’s Prime Minister is so obsessed with projecting himself that he has replaced ‘we’ with ‘I’. No stone has been left unturned to portray PM Modi as the face of the response strategy to the pandemic, while in actuality, the states and district administrations have been saddled with most of the responsibilities. Consider his address to the SAARC nations, the multiple addresses to the nation, the video conference with various stakeholders, or in the naming of the PM-Garib Kalyan Package (PM-GK) and PM-CARES. All of these serve to further the cult of PM Modi. Highlighting that such self-serving aggrandisement is unbecoming of a Prime Minister is now facile given it has continued unabated for the past six years. This narcissistic pathology will prove extremely damaging to the BJP’s organisational robustness, since no other leader is allowed to shine. Nitin Gadkari, Rajnath Singh, Raman Singh, Vasundhara Raje, Premkumar Dhumal and Shivraj Chauhan are just the tip of the iceberg.
But why this is especially troublesome for us is that the NDA is only interested in being seen to be doing something, rather than actually doing anything. Consider just four examples-
1. Even though the NDA has claimed its ABE package is worth over Rs. 20 lakh crore, an analysis of the financial package indicates that it is less than Rs 2.5 lakh crore, while former Finance Minister P Chidambaram has argued its closer to Rs. 1.86 lakh crores (or 0.91% of the GDP, not the 10% claimed by the NDA).
2. Some of ABE’s schemes were announced earlier (and their inclusion in ABE is tantamount to statistical jugglery). For example, the National Animal Disease Control programme was actually announced in May 2019 with an outlay of Rs. 13,343 crores.
3. Additionally, some of the schemes offered in ABE simply cannot be implemented. For example, while a Rs. 5000 crore credit facility has been given for street vendors, the government has no information on the number of street vendors in the country, let alone a comprehensive database of street-vendors. Also, with street vendors lacking basic documentation and facing official harassment, how are they to access credit? Likewise, the NDA’s credit package for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) is meaningless when most MSMEs have been non-operational for two months now. Similarly, the proposed Rs. 31,000 crores announced under the PM-GK for construction workers is pointless. Most construction workers either don’t have bank accounts or are far from where they have bank accounts (since they are migrants). How will they avail of this package?
4. Perhaps most problematically, the NDA has not been able to establish a common operating procedure to handle the ongoing migration crisis unfolding in cities across India (as millions of migrants desperate to reach home are stranded in congested locales). Till date, the NDA has been able to transport only 15 lakh of the eight crore migrants. At this rate, it will take the government three months to send all the migrants home! This is reminiscent of the equally badly planned and executed demonetisation. The ensuing panic-driven reverse migration has completely defeated the primary purpose of the lockdown, which was to break the transmission of the virus.
Keeping aside our ideological and partisan blinkers, we have to objectively weigh the NDA’s priorities. Citizens naturally expect their governments to imagine the unimaginable, to anticipate and then resolutely tackle any problems that could befall the nation. Rather than doing so, the NDA has focused on reaping political benefits from this crisis. The BJP has systematically milked the Corona pandemic to further cement itself and to project PM Modi. Given this, can anyone honestly believe that this is a government of the people, by the people, for the people? Is this government (or more specifically, party) anything more than passingly concerned about our welfare? Or remotely interested in furthering India’s constitutional promise? It is becoming abundantly clear that the BJP’s lust for absolute power outweighs any other consideration. This is a government exclusively devoted to itself.
Differences of opinion must not necessarily mean differences of principles. But the ideological and normative universes that the BJP and the rest of India occupy are so far apart that there seems to be no meeting ground. Through its constant self promotion, the BJP is consistently violating India’s most sacred rights of life, liberty and the dignity of the individual. It has also been found wanting in the discharge of the trust we reposed in it. The question we must therefore ask ourselves is this- just how long are we prepared to endure it?
*At the time of the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), it was decided that the union government would compensate state governments for the shortfall in GST collections as per a defined formula (determined by the Finance Commission and enshrined in the GST Act).
Pushparaj Deshpande is the Director of the Samruddha Bharat Foundation & Editor, Rethinking India series