As India continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic with some measure of success -- we do not yet know whether this is due to the as-yet modest numbers of those testing positive and the relatively small number of fatalities, or it is due to the effective management through the lockdown –the Narendra Modi government at the Centre is displaying a certain sullenness, refusing to take on board either the state governments or the Opposition parties in Parliament in chalking out a national response. Prime Minister Modi seems to want to deal with the situation all on his own as he seems to feel that the party’s impressive majority in Parliament is reflective of the people’s mandate and their trust in him. Initially, he wanted to enthuse the entire country into united and purposive action. Now he wants to go it alone with his war plans. But there is a sense at the back of his mind that his plans would have limited success if the state governments do not join in. It appeared that the second lockdown -- from April 15 to May 3 --was in some way in response to the demand of the chief ministers, but the Centre seemed to have lost interest in the whole process. The extension of the lockdown for a further two weeks -- from May 4 to May 17 -- came in an official home ministry communique, and not a prime ministerial broadcast to the nation.
And Mr Modi seems loath to consult the decimated and carping Opposition in Parliament in the decision-making. After a ritual round of a meeting with the floor leaders of the Opposition parties in Parliament, Mr Modi has effectively turned his back on it, who he believes is out to discredit him even in this hour of calamity and stress. He may not be really off the mark there. To be fair to Mr Modi, the Congress would possibly have behaved in the same way that he is doing if the party was in power and it had the numbers in Parliament that Mr Modi now has. Parties in power in India do not like the idea of sharing the responsibility of power even when they do not have any reason to fear the Opposition.
The Central government took gratuitous decisions without consulting the chief ministers and the state governments. First, it took the belated decision of sending migrant labourers stuck in many cities back to their villages, but it did not work out the details of the plan with the state governments. And it did not explain why it had reversed its own view that everyone should stay put where they were, and that stranded workers should be provided food and shelter. And the Centre took almost no interest in taking care of them, leaving it to the state governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to do the needful. Neither the state governments nor the NGOs were assured of any financial assistance in the matter. The Centre felt it had done its bit when it announced free rations to ration card holders in cities, towns and villages, and offered free cylinders to the Ujjwala scheme beneficiaries. The cash offer of Rs 500 to be put in Jan Dhan Yojana accounts was again done without much thought. It was a knee-jerk response to the plight of the poor.
The exercise of creating the graded zones of red, orange and green on the basis of the intensity of Covid-19 in these areas seems to have been done without strategic intent. The Union home ministry is keen to issue orders to state administrations in the form of advisories. The health ministry, despite the studied intervention of health minister Harsh Vardhan, seems to be passive and sullen in turn. There is no ongoing dialogue between the Centre and the states, which should actually be the norm in times of crisis like this. The systems are functioning with mechanical rhythm, between hospitals and laboratories of the states and the Centre. The Central task forces set up by the Prime Minister do not appear to be active participants. They are functioning like the Central government’s monitoring agencies. To say the least, it is not the best example of pooling resources, collecting and sharing data in a federal polity.
More important, Mr Modi and his colleagues appear keen to demonstrate the utter financial dependence of state governments on the Centre. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s promise in Parliament days before the lockdown that the share of the states of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) collections would be released remains a dead word.
The prickly relations between the Centre and some state governments is quite evident in the case of West Bengal. Mr Modi’s party, the BJP, is keen to pursue partisan politics, keeping in mind the Assembly elections due in the state next summer. Instead of coordination, there is confrontation. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee walked straight into the BJP’s trap and reacted negatively, and in the process lost control of Covid-19 management in the state, with the figures of those affected by the virus fluctuating and uncertain. Health minister Harsh Vardhan, a qualified doctor himself, took pains to explain that the inter-ministerial Central teams which were being sent to the states were there to help the state governments. Quite clearly, the BJP scored brownie points but it did not really improve the efficiency of the Central government in grappling with the pandemic. Similarly, the BJP allowed the situation regarding the election of Shiv Sena supremo Uddhav Thackeray, who is the chief minister in the Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress government in Maharashtra, was forced to ring up Prime Minister Modi before governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari advised the Election Commission that polls could be held for the Legislative Council later this month, which would enable Mr Thackeray to get elected and stay in office as CM. The governors in West Bengal and in Maharashtra were indulging in partisan politics without caring for the dignity of the constitutional office that they hold. The BJP, through its Central government, refused to let go of an opportunity to needle a rival. For Mr Modi and his party colleagues, it seems as though it remains “politics as usual”.