Updated: April 20, 2020 9:26:39 am
The extension of the national lockdown with little possibility of an early exit has enhanced national anxieties and generated political discourse about the way forward. The sight of thousands of migrant workers, including women and children, trudging back to their homes without food, shelter or healthcare, and also the protests in Surat and Mumbai, raise compelling questions about the adequacy of the government’s response to the situation.
The pandemic certainly does not spell the demise of politics nor of democratic conversations on the quality of governance. In fact, it is incumbent upon the Prime Minister to encourage the opening up, and expansion of, constructive — even if contrarian — voices as well as forge the broadest national consensus to meet this unprecedented challenge. National conversation in these troubled times should not shrink from obvious conclusions or conflicts with the powers that be. For example, how can we not question, except at the cost of national unity, the attempted social ostracisation and condemnation of an entire community for the indiscretion of some members of the Tablighi Jamaat? The Opposition is entitled to proclaim its honest beliefs on various policy issues: For instance, regarding the need to spend a much larger percentage of the GDP than the present 0.8 per cent, to bring immediate succour with dignity to the worst-hit segment of our society. State compassion for the marginalised is a non-negotiable obligation, expressly stated in the Constitution’s preambulary promise of fraternity.
However, it is legitimate to expect that the tone and tenor of the Opposition’s dissent, where necessary, is not divisive or debilitative. It should not appear to rest on a boastful assumption of superior judgement, experience or knowledge, which could be counterproductive to the cause. In this defining moment, the nation may want to give the Prime Minister the benefit of doubt. Most importantly, it is time to imagine and practise a politics that is befitting of the challenge of our times. At this point, when we are at the crossroads of history with a new world in the offing, let it not be said that our politics is driven by “pompous incompetents” or “greedy opportunists”.
What, then, should be the canvas of our politics and how should we define its limits? We can begin with an honest acknowledgement of the skewed priorities and patent errors of judgement. We should accept that dismal financial allocations for public health and medical research and the inadequate health service delivery systems signal a failure of sensitivity to the human condition. We must concede that the several reasonsfor our present predicament include a wanton abandonment of ancient wisdom, that the life of all living beings is interconnected and that a “good life” is a rejection of extremes and an embrace of moderation.
The current situation is about the ravages of ecological excess, a breach of the principles of harmonious living, and the balance between an individual’s inner and social life. The present crisis is a reminder of our neglect of the sustaining emotional bond of family and friends. We must question ourselves on how a spiritual society anchored in compassion has come to a point where doctors, as healers, are assaulted — and a police official in the frontline of duty has his hand chopped off in an act of extreme barbarity. Addressing these serious aberrations must be the end purpose of our politics.
We need to draw attention to these realities, not merely condemn or criticise for the sake of it. We must do so to reorient our politics and the exertions of a welfare state to meet the challenges of modernity. We must interrogate the inadequacies of our system, the ruinous consequences of misplaced priorities and the misconceived remedies against hunger and hopelessness. So that by addressing these, we may move closer to an equitable and inclusive social order. Let us try, at least, to make politics “a game of realising the ideal”.
We need a leadership that offers hope to the people, and demonstrates the capacity to realise them. The will of our age is the establishment of a just society in which, as Richard Sheridan famously said, “the heart expands… to stoop to the unfortunate — to hear their cry, and to help them — to rescue and relieve, to succour and save.” A society in which economic efficiency and social justice are not incompatible; a society which is not paralysed by its refusal to recognise the unity of life and livelihood. A social order where law is evenly applied, where no choice is imposed between life and death for the want of ventilators; a system which is committed to human dignity of all.
Posterity will record whether we rose to the challenge of the present moment. If we are to remember this catastrophe, hopefully only as a footnote of our history, we must have faith in the lessons of the past as a guide to our actions for the future. To meet the enormous challenge we are confronted with, a united resolve is an absolute imperative. In the process, this will also strengthen our democracy, founded in good faith.
The Prime Minister would know that democratic power rests, enduringly, only on the foundation of the peoples’ affection and gratitude. For the present, we can say with satisfaction that the nation’s chief executive has done well in reaching out to political leaders and state governments in order to rally the entire nation in managing “the trade-off between lives and livelihood”. And his gesture has been fully reciprocated. Indeed, we cannot forget that history is not the burden of any one man or woman alone. This war for humanity’s survival will be fought, and won, by the people as a whole.
The writer is former Union minister for law and justice. Views are personal
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