Updated: May 27, 2021 12:15:38 am
Written by CR Kesavan and Vignesh Karthik KR
As of May 26, India has 27,157,795 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 3,11,388 deaths, well past the combined number of Indian fatalities in our five major post-independence wars. On the livelihoods front, a report by the ILO notes that at least 400 million informal workers have been pushed into poverty by the pandemic. “Citizens can only fall back on the State. So, you have to beg, borrow or steal and ensure the protection of fundamental emergency,” the Delhi High Court had remarked to the Centre. The Supreme Court had earlier sought from the Centre a National Plan to deal with the crisis.
The COVID-19 contagion has engendered a slew of unusual events: The Chief Justice of the Madras High Court remarking that Election Commission officials should be put up for murder charges for failing to enforce COVID-19 norms, hospitals moving courts seeking oxygen supply, a state health minister accusing a neighbouring state of looting oxygen tankers, a chief minister urging the Centre to stop mandatory diversion of its resources without consent, a ruling party MLA equating the Serum Institute’s CEO to a dacoit, and so on.
Our nation’s health edifice has been overwhelmed while trying to cope with the crisis. Unfortunately, the federal ethos of the country is also under strain. A pandemic of this scale warrants a suspension of politics as usual. Like the unfinished biblical Tower of Babel, we cannot protect our people and trounce this pandemic given the prevailing discord and blame game between the Union and State governments coupled with the deep distrust amongst the political class. A comprehensive and more importantly, a conciliatory consensus-driven COVID-19 strategy is the need of the hour.
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A lesson we can draw from history is the importance of national unity Cabinets with cross-party membership, on the lines of erstwhile War Cabinets. Besides the ruling dispensation, a Unity Cabinet would encompass India’s best minds representing the Opposition, professionals and industry leaders with proven expertise. The decision-making in such a cabinet will not be blinkered by individual ideological proclivities. Its guiding mantra would be collective responsibility and accountability, and it will be dissolved after we tide over the crisis.
One may dismiss the idea as a Panglossian pipe dream but history shows us otherwise. Abraham Lincoln formed a Cabinet with a “Team of Rivals” that clinched victory in the US Civil War. Winston Churchill led the British War Cabinet in 1940 with members from the opposition ranks like his predecessor Asquith did during the First World War. Even independent India’s first cabinet sworn in on August 15, 1947, in the aftermath of the partition, resembled a National Unity Cabinet. Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel ensured that. Of the 14 ministers, four of them — R K Shanmukham Chetty, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, B R Ambedkar, and Baldev Singh — were fierce political adversaries of the ruling Congress party. Two others, John Mathai and C H Bhabha were individuals of distinction. More recently, the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison formed a National Cabinet, to tackle the COVID-19 issues in 2020.
Apart from instilling a sense of trust and hope, the Unity Cabinet would be equipped and empowered to specifically tackle the combined financial, social, and health crises gripping our country. India is yet to enact a comprehensive legislation to handle COVID-19 at the national and state levels. New Zealand’s COVID 19 Public Health Response Act 2020, the United States’ Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, and the United Kingdom’s Coronavirus Act 2020 are crucial and timely legislations that helped their respective countries check and contain the virus.
Since Parliament is in recess and parliamentary panel virtual meets have also been ruled out, the National Unity Cabinet can approve ordinances that allow for a preemptive policy-based approach, rather than relying on GOs that tend to be ad-hoc in nature. This legislation could inter alia, effectively address issues like calibrating vaccine prices and distribution, seamless movement and sharing of essentials between states, concerted fiscal management, and mobilising resources for direct cash transfers to help the country combat the pandemic and its ramifications sustainably. A Unity Cabinet can also forge domestic solidarity that would enable India to be more assertive in international fora to ensure unimpeded imports of crucial materials and secure intellectual property rights exemptions.
Notwithstanding any casuistry, the COVID-19 catastrophe is a grim reality confronting our nation. Faced with the biggest crisis of our generation, we need to unite and collectively heed the better angels of our nature. “To discern the truth in everything, by whomsoever spoken, is wisdom,” avers the timeless Thirukkural.
The Supreme Court, very recently, set up a National Task Force (NTF) to streamline oxygen allocation and guarantee the availability of essential drugs, medicines to the states. The Cabinet Secretary will act as its convenor comprising doctors and medical experts across the country. Another pointer towards the need for a holistic consensus approach.
The Union government must ensure convergence of political will by setting up a National Unity Cabinet with the single purpose of overcoming the COVID-19 scourge. Bringing together the best and the brightest will have the effect of restoring our people’s confidence in the nation’s collective leadership, which is an urgent necessity. If we make this bold and crucially needed move, surely posterity will recall this defining moment and say this was our finest hour.
(CR Kesavan is a former member of the Prasar Bharati Board. Vignesh Karthik KR is a doctoral researcher at King’s College London)
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