Work with states unhindered by ego
Barbed incentives and retaliatory revenge are weakening India’s resolve to extirpate Covid.
India’s power lies in diversity. The countless invasions and internecine wars over centuries coalesced cultural combinations to form our federal foundations. Calamity breeds insecurity and belligerence. India, once the world’s richest nation with a 24.4 per cent share of the world economy in 1700, has been overtaken even by Bangladesh. The humiliation apart, the national atmosphere is degenerating into intolerant and pugnacious chaos.
Confrontation has replaced consensus. Genuine disagreement is taken as affront. From politics to entertainment, a new combative Indian has emerged. He is unwilling to yield an inch to any contrary narrative. Nothing else can explain the continuous bickering between the Centre and the states over India’s disastrous Covid management. Going by statistics, every 12th Covid death is in India and every seventh citizen has been infected. Yet, the political class is squabbling over numerical notoriety and shifting the blame according to political affiliations.
The language and tone indicate that today’s India resembles not a unified nation, but a confederation of the feudal fiefdoms of the 18th century. Our politicians fail to understand that Bengal’s agony is not Assam’s ecstasy. Rajasthan’s prosperity isn’t Haryana’s tragedy. All states are inseparable vital organs of India’s totality. If one fails, the others will fall sick sooner than later. Hence, sit and talk rather than shoot and scoot.
Crisis conferences between Prime Minister Modi and chief ministers are now battlefields for settling scores, and not forums to vapourise the virus. Last week, Mamata Banerjee targeted Modi after attending a meeting called by him to discuss Covid care. He had also invited a select group of District Magistrates and chief ministers for feedback from the ground. The CMs had expected to get feedback, too.
Mamata, after her party’s stunning victory last month, was in no mood to stay a mute spectator. After the meeting, she lambasted the PM. “This was not a one-way communication... it was oneway humiliation... One nation, all humiliation. Is the Prime Minister so insecure that he didn’t want to listen to the chief ministers? Why is he so scared? If he didn’t want to hear the chief ministers why call us? He let some District Magistrates speak and insulted the Chief Ministers,” she said.
Previously, Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren expressed similar sentiments after participating in a tele-meeting with Modi. He had said, “Today, the respected PM called. He only spoke his ‘Mann Ki Baat’. It would have been better if he would have talked business and listened to the issues.” Arvind Kejriwal streamed his speech live which was deemed against protocol; Modi scolded him. Only Andhra CM Jagan Reddy pleaded for harmony and reconciliation. Justifiably, the BJP chief ministers stayed shtum out of loyalty or fear, ignoring the contagion’s harvest of horror.
The time has come for genuine cooperative federalism with the Centre leading from the front and the states having their say in national affairs. Like the party in power at the Centre enjoys the mandate of the people, so do the regional parties. In fact, who other than Modi can understand a state’s agony better, after facing 12 years of legal and political persecution as Gujarat’s chief minister? A year after becoming the PM, he committed himself to federalism. He declared during a public speech in 2015, “As someone who has been CM for 13 years and PM for one, this forum has a special place in my heart. But, it is not just my sentiments that lead me to give such importance to this new institution. It comes from a serious conviction, born from my experience, that states have a vital role to play in the national development. This is especially true for large and populous countries, with a high degree of geographical, social and economic diversity. It becomes even more relevant, when the constitutional and political systems are federal in structure.”
Perhaps, abolishing the Planning Commission was Modi’s way of ensuring federal inclusivity in policy formulation. He replaced the Commission with the NITI Aayog in 2015. A month later, the Governing Council of NITI Aayog was constituted. According to an official statement, “NITI Aayog has been mandated with fostering Cooperative Federalism through structured support initiatives and mechanisms with the States on a continuous basis, recognising that strong States make a strong nation on the principles of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas’.” In practice, the spirit behind the vision seems to have been cremated along with the hundreds of bodies choking crematoriums, forests and fields of rural India.
Since 2015, Modi has called half a dozen meetings of the Council where consensus was achieved on various developmental programmes. The last one was held virtually in February. It was attended by all heads of states and UTs, Union Ministers, Special Invitees. NITI Aayog Vice-Chairman, CEO, its members and top officers who administer India. India was then emerging from the first Covid wave. The meeting could have been the best opportunity for a future course of action since the CMs were not interested in political confrontation. But NITI Aayog’s babus and others were neither concerned nor aware of the dangers ahead. Its top echelons were hardly involved in handling the pandemic on a huge scale.
Ladder climbers like Planning Commission member VK Paul, Ram Sewak Sharma, Chairman, National Health Authority and Balram Bhargava, Director General, ICMR are disturbing the delicate centre-state relationship. Dr Paul, a paediatrician by education, is advising on vaccination policy without even talking to the states properly. Sharma, who has one plum post after another during successive government, perhaps, floated the idea to put the PM’s picture on vaccine certificate causing heartburns. None of them has ever dealt with pulmonary diseases. One of them discovered a cheaper stent for the heart ailment. The troika comprising Paul, Sharma, and Bhargava is like a herd of goats pretending to confront a charging crocodile.
And Paul and others in NITI Aayog saw the PM’s last meeting as just another annual ‘jaw-jaw’ ritual. In his welcome remarks, Rajiv Kumar, Vice-Chairman, NITI Aayog, stated that the Sixth Governing Council Meeting was “unique since it brought together the country’s highest decision-makers on one platform.” Curiously, NITI Aayog conveniently forgot to include Covid management on the agenda. Moreover, no CM was asked for an opinion since the Centre was confident that the worst was over. Kumar claimed that the think tank finalised the agenda after discussions with state governments.
Even Paul, the most visible face on TV, ignored his duty to give a status report to national and state leaders on the possibility of a second wave and vaccination preparedness. On the agenda were subjects like making India a manufacturing powerhouse, reimagining agriculture, improving physical infrastructure, improving service delivery at grassroots level among others, with the PM suggesting a blueprint for the future. They met, they heard, they dispersed.
However, Modi briefly mentioned India’s success in containing the virus. According to the government press statement, “…the Prime Minister said that Cooperative Federalism was the foundation of India’s progress. Cooperative and Competitive Federalism should be made more effective and taken to the district level, he said. The country succeeded in managing the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic only because the Centre and the States worked together in a spirit of partnership.”
But the states were hardly consulted while preparing the medical protocol, ordering vaccines, imposing restrictions on movement of people and services, and distribution of life-saving drugs and oxygen. Turf conscious apparatchiks in New Delhi rotated files among themselves or between their peers in other states without taking the local political leadership into confidence.
Barbed incentives and retaliatory revenge are weakening India’s resolve to extirpate Covid. This mutating monster cannot be eliminated with Twitter wars and questionable toolkits, but only through federal magnanimity. A clash of egos will inflame existing hostilities. Competence, not competition, is the true spirit of federal cooperation to lead India out of the maelstrom of maladies.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla