A pandemic with unknown behaviour and prospects of fatality is bound to alter everything — life cycles, rhythms of the economy, social mores. It will have a deep impact on politics as we understood it. Globally, it would undercut the idea of the public, or, at best, seek to transform it into the spurious phenomenon of the digitised public. In a world that is ready to turn interpersonal rela tions into digital artefacts or, worse, embrace the latter as interpersonal relations, the current wave of social distancing may as well end up finding virtue in distant digital proximity. India, with only limited penetration of this form of distancing, but with its own variant of post-people publicness, is faced with a choice: Suspension of politics, or the search for a new politics.
Deliberation, decentralisation and dissent constitute important gains made through democracy during the last century. We are about to lose those — and the irony is that we may lose these of our own volition. A first step in that direction is decisions without consultation; the next is to overemphasise the virtue of quick decisions; the third would be to delegitimise different viewpoints; finally reaching a point of conformity where no dissent is possible. India may not be alone in this. The crisis gripping many other societies across the globe, too, has all the possibilities of enhancing bureaucratic authoritarianisms represented by the spectacle of the cult of leadership. So, we should brace ourselves not only for the deep impact the Corona crisis will have on routine lives and the economy; this crisis will also leave its imprint on the idea of the public and our politics.
Suddenly, the months of January and February begin to appear irrelevant. All contested issues, pre-Corona, have not only become distant, but in all likelihood, will be shelved indeterminately. The government has quietly “postponed” the NPR without a word about the contention it involved; the detentions in Kashmir are selectively withdrawn — but without a judicial probe into their legality in the first place; the scandals surrounding the judiciary are forgotten; and above all, the fall of India’s economy goes without earmarking any responsibility — post-Corona, all economic disaster will be blamed on the virus.
Some of these erasures might be inevitable, but the moot point is, what space for genuine politics do we now have? Can the crisis usher in a new politics of democratic governance? For that to happen, three things are needed.
First, the urgent need is to go beyond personality and charm offensives through national addresses. Both the government and Opposition need to move beyond “What Modi did” and “Only Modi could do this”. Instead, the arena of deliberation needs systematic expansion: Between government and Opposition, between Centre and states; between experts and the administration and even between the Union and state administrations. Unless we do this, no amount of grandstanding and no number of disaster management laws can help us democratically address situations of crisis.
Two, we must frankly debate the knee-jerk reactions in creating “funds” (“PM CARES” included — surely we all care, not just the PM?). Such moves mark petty one-upmanship, evoke emotions, but don’t build national infrastructures. Since the current crisis is a public health crisis, the politics around it should be about how much we spend on public health through regular budgets. The issue is about pumping money into building long-term and broad-range testing facilities across the country, supporting more virology labs, funding public hospitals in small towns, paying government doctors and support staff well. MPs and MLAs donating their salaries is only a useless blind to assuage an anxious public. They should be asking for these substantive shifts in public policy.
The third arena of politics relates to how we understand the link between economic inequality and suffering during such crisis. Obviously, when crisis erupts, in agriculture or like this one, governments are expected and inclined to announce “relief”. The Rs 1.7 lakh crore package smacks of a contingent relief mentality. Notwithstanding the necessity of economic packages, public policy should not be confined to such largesse. We need a new politics around collective obligation for welfare. Ten years ago, a feeble beginning was made with the language of welfare as rights, but we keep running from one relief package to another. We would have done great service to both the poor and to democratic politics if the crisis spurs us to think beyond the politics of sentimentalising largesse. The question of how to structurally include the issue of welfare into public policymaking needs to enter the political arena.
The present moment, alas, does not hold a promise in these directions. Democracy and debate are supposed to be out-of-turn matters in times of crisis. They are seen as luxuries best reserved for “normal” times. “Politicising” is a pejorative term reserved for any dissenting view. But beyond hoping for a different political agenda, even by routine standards, the current mismanagement of the crisis requires a closer look. And that task cannot be postponed; it has to be carried out right now and in earnest.
Over the one week since the national lockdown, what can we say about procedures and processes? The most important platform of policy and governance debates, Parliament, was not only adjourned but the PM bypassed it, speaking to the public via national address. And how will we remember the lockdown? In all honesty, a future historian will have to pick the images that constitute national shame: Thousands of poor, daily wage earners walking through the lockdown and random but certainly not isolated use of the baton by the police in times of a health emergency. These are not merely matters of detail where the decision of lockdown and its implementation might have gone wrong. These instances show what happens when routine democratic politics is effectively suspended.
What we have probably not realised is that at the stroke of midnight on March 24, India suspended “politics”. The effects of that suspension may not be confined to the mismanagement of the current crisis; they will stay with us. A qualitative shift in the agenda of politics might appear as daydreaming in the present context because, with our love for conformity, we have left no room for criticism, much less for politics.
A curious coincidence of the arrogance of authority, surrender by the Opposition, impatience of the public and acquiescence by media has conspired in producing this moment. Through the fight against the pandemic, a noiseless footstep of depoliticisation of the idea of public policy has crept in. In the process, the democratic gains of the past are bound to shrink and even get consigned to the history of “normal times”. It is not adequate consolation that India is not alone in experiencing this eerie quiet characterised by its current lockdown — the lockdown of the idea of public domain.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 1, 2020 under the title ‘An eerie quiet’. The writer, based in Pune, taught political science and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics.
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