Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacts with floor leaders of the Opposition parties on Covid-19, April 8, 2020(PTI)
In the build-up to the 2019 general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s most potent campaign plank was to pose a direct question: “Modi versus who?” Now the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) may have redefined notions of “national” leadership: It is the chief ministers (CMs) who are at the frontline of the battle. In a sense, the crisis is a reminder that real power and responsibility does not vest in Delhi, but in the state capitals. A Modi-centric political universe is being finally forced to acknowledge the existence of a diverse range of regional leaders.
Take, for example, the Maharashtra CM, Uddhav Thackeray. Lacking his father’s charisma or administrative experience, he was widely perceived as an “accidental” CM when he took over in November. Less than six months later, Thackeray has become the face of Maharashtra’s fight against the coronavirus. His daily TV addresses stand out for their 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 travelled under his leadership. If the coronavirus-positive numbers in Maharashtra are higher, it is a consequence of more rigorous testing, and Mumbai being a social contact hub for travellers.
Take also the Kerala CM, Pinarayi Vijayan. Until now, Vijayan’s image was of a local political strongman with limited mass connect. The coronavirus crisis has shown him to be a hands-on politician with a firm grasp over the administration. Be it an economic package for the poor, setting up emergency testing facilities in hotspot districts, or even imposing a controlled lockdown, Kerala, with its valued tradition of public health investment, has been a step ahead of the national agenda.
Indeed, across the political divide, different states have risen to the challenge. In Punjab, for example, Captain Amarinder Singh has ensured that the state’s large migrant labour population is given enough financial support to stay back ahead of the harvest season. In Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath was one of the first to assure a guaranteed income to daily-wage labourers. In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has set up three fully-equipped Covid-19 hospitals. In Chhattisgarh, Bhupesh Baghel has ensured extra rations for all, while in Rajasthan, the Ashok Gehlot government moved swiftly to contain the outbreak in Bhilwara. In Delhi, the Arvind Kejriwal government has initiated mass-scale random testing. Assam’s Sarbananda Sonowal government has been quick to scale up its medical preparedness, while in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s “Sufalbangla” scheme has ensured vegetable prices are kept in check.
This special focus on CMs to deliver underscores the urgent need to re-orient Centre-state relations in the coronavirus-hit age. The Delhi-knows-best mindset has long plagued the political order, creating a centralised system of decision-making. In the Modi years, major decisions such as demonetisation were taken, with minimal consultation and maximum disruption, a command-and-control approach that allows for no consensus-building. A war-like situation like the current one demands a fundamental change: A need for constant interaction with stakeholders in a spirit of genuine partnership, where the focus shifts from nurturing a personality cult to incentivising a collective effort.
Today, each state is in desperate need of extra central funds and relaxation in fiscal limits. Even the Goods and Services Tax (GST) model — pitched as an exemplar of a reset in Centre-state relations — is now under scrutiny with many states complaining that they haven’t received pending GST compensation. There is also a need for an effective nationwide protocol where the Union health ministry and apex bodies such as the Indian Council of Medical Research work closely with local state bodies on critical issues like testing permissions for private labs and ensuring swifter delivery of personal protective equipment for health workers.
This is where Modi needs to lead the way by rising above all political divides. As Gujarat CM, Modi would often complain about state autonomy being compromised by a dominant Centre. And yet, the prime minister (PM) held his first meeting with CMs only on March 20 when the coronavirus-positive cases in the country had crossed 200; five days later, a national lockdown was put in place at four hours notice without allegedly intimating the CMs in advance. When a nine-minutes-lights-off campaign was announced, CMs or state power ministers were not taken into confidence. When the Centre declared a financial package for the poor, there was again no attempt made to involve state finance ministers. It is only over the last few days that the PM has initiated a welcome dialogue with the Opposition leaders on the coronavirus, a step which should have ideally been taken weeks ago when Parliament was in session.
When he first came to power, Modi spoke of himself as captain of Team India, promising to replace excessive centralism with cooperative federalism. This is the moment for him to walk the talk: Maybe even set up a national task force, comprising CMs, Opposition leaders, and domain experts to fight the coronavirus collectively. A general must lead the war effort but, this time, brigade commanders 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, CM Pramod Sawant interpreted the lockdown as a diktat to shut down 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 these troubled coronavirus times.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. His latest book is 2019: How Modi Won India
The views expressed are personal