Restoring the spirit of cooperative federalism
Recently, two prominent Indians commented on the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in different ways. Taken together, they seem to sum up where we have reached in the debate on this crisis, and point to the direction in which we should travel now.
First, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat has said, “Following the first wave, we all lowered our guard — people, government, administration alike.”
He added that this is no time for a blame-game. The sarsanghchalak is close to the seat of power in the government — so at last a prominent person, identified with the government, has admitted that it must share the blame for what has gone wrong.
This is surely a significant moment, suggesting that now is the time to stop arguing over where we have gone wrong, and who has been at fault in order to concentrate on preparing for a possible third Covid-19 wave. The sarsanghchalak said we have to be prepared for that wave “like the rock against which waves crash only to recede into the ocean”.
The containment of the virus is, now, to a considerable extent, in the hands of chief ministers as well. The central government has to play a role in holding them together.
So Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to carry all the chief ministers with him if India is to stand united like a rock, and practise cooperative federalism in letter and spirit. This means the prime minister and chief ministers must listen to each other.
Modi is a highly skilled communicator. He can galvanise the crowds at rallies, speak like a statesman when addressing the nation, and use the unique intimacy that can be conveyed by radio to broadcast his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ programmes. But how good a listener is he?
That brings me to the second intervention. After the prime minister telephoned Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren to enquire about conditions in the state, Soren complained, “He only spoke his mind. It would have been better if he’d talked and listened about the work.” At the end of the week, West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee had a similar complaint following the prime minister’s meeting with district authorities.
That criticism does confirm an impression the prime minister gives of being someone who prefers to talk rather than listen. He is known to have listened to very few people before taking two of the most crucial decisions of his time in office — demonetisation and the imposition of the national lockdown. It is, of course, just as important for chief ministers to listen to the prime minister. They must also listen to their people, rather than imposing draconian restrictions and threatening arrests as has been the case in Uttar Pradesh.
If the prime minister and chief ministers are to be cooperative federalists, electoral defeats will have to be taken with good grace by the central government. In Bengal, the unprecedented provision of armed central paramilitary police for every Bharatiya Janata Party legislator; the arrest of four Trinamool Congress leaders while two former party leaders, now with the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused in the same case, are left untouched; and the bias of Bengal governor, Jagdeep Dhankhar, does not signal cooperative federalism.
In Delhi, where the BJP faced a humiliating defeat, the home ministry chose April 27, the height of the oxygen and beds crisis, to bring into effect the legislation which undermines the elected government of the city.
Cooperative federalism is a great idea, and is the need of the hour. Unfortunately, it is easier said than done.
The views expressed are personal