It is around 125 days since the first deaths were reported from coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and no part of the world is immune from it. Countries like Italy, Spain, which were hit hard, or South Korea and Germany which escaped with fewer deaths and are almost out of it, face the danger of a second wave. In the UK and US, it is still continuing and, while there is hope that the worst is over, you should never be sure.
Most surprising has been the unpreparedness of almost every government in their health service, the bureaucracy or the support services. The crisis has affirmed that when it matters, only the State can tackle a challenge. But, at the same time, even the most powerful State or the richest economy has proved unequal to the task. So, while the State alone can help, it is not good enough. There are no winners here.
India did better than European countries or the US in imposing lockdown early on in the course of Covid-19, but it is too soon to call an end. Along the way, the crisis has exposed serious weaknesses in the political infrastructure.
When the Constitution was drafted, the expectation seems to have been that the Congress will be in power at the Centre and in all the states. The Union is now seen as beset with problems when the party in power at the Centre and in various states is not the same. We saw this already last December with many states threatening to boycott the CAA, NRC or even the National Population Register exercise. Covid-19 interrupted that dispute. The new battle seems to be about the financial fragility of states.
This has caused much more dissension than is usual. With GST collections down, states are impoverished.
This is due to the fact that whatever the division of power between the Centre and states, the Centre is asymmetrically the more powerful. It can impose curfew on any and every state. It also has much greater capacity to raise money despite the many Finance Commissions which have tried to devolve more revenue in a formulaic way.
One development which needs to be watched is the idea that migrant workers ‘belong’ to a certain state, and that it is responsible for their welfare. In this crisis, it is of course helpful that states belatedly decided to provide transport for migrants, to help them return to their villages. But the idea that there is a state citizenship is to be discouraged. There are only Indian citizens. Assam has been in constant agitation for the last 50 years due to its insistence on Assamiyat and weeding out ‘outsiders’, be they Hindu or Muslims. The Madhya Pradesh government was recently promising job reservations for ‘its’ citizens. The Shiv Sena came to prominence asking South Indians to be denied jobs in Maharashtra 50 years ago. If the idea of state citizenship takes hold as a result of Covid-19, it will be corrosive.
On the positive side, people have abided by the lockdown with very little protest. Even the migrants, homeless and jobless, have been patient despite much hardship. But the Centre will need to nurse the Constitution and India back to good health.
This article appeared in the print edition of May 10, 2020, under the title ‘Next up for Centre: nurse Constitution’?
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