The political fallout of the second wave
This may well be a function of whether political parties, irrespective of their hue, eschew narrative-setting and work for what really matters
The devastation and trauma which is being inflicted on Indians, rich and poor alike, by the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Given the fact that the State (both the Union and the state governments) had more than a year to prepare for this, and has yet been found wanting in terms of both prevention and treatment, it will be interesting to see the political fallout of this.
India entered a new political epoch in 2014, which has been described as the fourth party system by political scientist Milan Vaishnav. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Narendra Modi is the dominant political hegemon today. An important pillar which supports the BJP’s current political dominance is the centralisation of welfare benefits where everything from health insurance to a toilet and now portable water connections to the voter is attributed to Modi. Neelanjan Sircar and Yamini Aiyar have described it as the politics of vishwas (trust).
This begs an important question. If voters have rewarded Modi and his party for achievements, tangible and non-tangible — enhancement in India’s prestige post-2014 being a good example of the latter — then will the Centre not receive a disproportionate share of the blame for the current crisis? And will this not be reflected politically?
The short answer is not necessarily. Here’s why.
Market failures in Indian politics are the first reason. Simply speaking, political parties do not have the right incentives to deal with such issues.
The basic premise that there will be a political fallout of the second wave is that the pandemic matters to the voters. The experience of the Bihar elections, the first major poll to be held after the lockdown, which hurt incomes, does not seem to support this. Data from the CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey shows that 0.1% (one in 1,000) of the respondents thought that “coronavirus/lockdown/migrant related” issues were the most important concerns while voting in Bihar in 2020. To be sure, the first wave did not extract as high a cost as the second wave, and perceptions could change. But politicians, while deciding strategy, are more likely to be guided by past experience. Not only did the National Democratic Alliance retain Bihar, the BJP also became the senior partner in the alliance.
Both the Centre and the states have changed their minds from being pro-lockdown to become pro-livelihood in a year. India imposed one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world last year even though Covid-19 infections were only a small fraction of what they are now. In his address to the nation on April 20, Modi advocated lockdown as a policy of last resort.
This author, in a March 2020 piece in these pages, underlined the asymmetry in the costs and benefits of the lockdown, “while the benefits of a lockdown preventing the infection from spreading would equally accrue to everyone, the costs will be disproportionately higher for the poor, who, unlike the better off, have neither the luxury of working from home nor enough of a savings pool to exhaust while not earning”. The evidence at hand, of the post-pandemic recovery being profit — rather than wage-led, and employment recovery lagging the growth recovery supports this argument. It also explains why governments have had to use lockdowns only as a last resort.
Indeed, any lockdowns that will be imposed now will be by the states. And any inefficiencies in the vaccine drive for everyone between the ages of 18 and 45 years will again be attributed to the states (which have seen all sorts of last-mile issues in managing the drive so far).
Ultimately, the political fallout of this crisis, among the worst this country has seen, may well be a function of whether political parties, irrespective of their hue, eschew narrative-setting and work for what really matters.
Ashok Mitra, arguably India’s tallest Marxist intellectual, has described the political situation during the Quit India Movement and Bengal famine, which killed millions of people, in his autobiography.
“Members of the middle class were in a fix. Congressmen courted arrest and went to jail. Communists were out of jail (having opposed the Quit India Movement as Nazi Germany was seen as an aggressor against socialism) and worked selflessly in famine relief. It was best trying to give up who was right and who was wrong. The ravages of the famine and the general state of food scarcity, however, left people with little time for polemics over political ideology...But the role of the comrades who came to succour the dying and starving, selflessly, tirelessly, and with the sincerest of zeal, impressed the middle class no end”.
Their famine relief work brought more than just goodwill for the Bengal Communists. It also generated huge tailwinds for the land struggle, which ultimately brought the Communists to power for 34 uninterrupted years in 1977. “Social dynamics has its own way of creating near opportunities for some and crises for others,” Mitra wrote. If the Communists had done nothing, Indian history would have been very different.
The views expressed are personal