The occasion to revisit the sovereign’s role
There has to be a discourse on redefining the state’s involvement in India’s political, economic and social life.
- Vaccines are going to be slow in coming; therefore, its taming is not immediate. A second wave of outbreak is a realistic probability.
- Unlike other threats to humanity such as global warming and a nuclear armageddon, this threat is now, not in the future; it is here simultaneously for everyone, not for someone else and somewhere else; its casualties are around us, not in far away battlefields or polar regions and coastal areas.
- No country can rescue another; it is each one fending for itself.
- If the lockdown continues, the world economy will contract by as much as 6% according to the International Monetary Fund.
- If it is not extended, the loss of human lives could be of unacceptable proportions. The global community will be fortunate if it does not spiral into depression.
- Both demand and supply contractions are likely to be severe. They are not going to be short-lived.
- Political systems, economic architectures and cultural mores are on trial. Work patterns, production and distribution practices are up for redefinition.
The retreat of the state
- India embarked on the path of trimming the role of the state, initially, with such caveats as ‘safety net’ and ‘reform with a human face’.
- The Indian state’s role in health care, education, creation and maintenance of infrastructure and delivery of welfare has shrunk or become nominal, half-hearted, inefficient, and dysfunctional.
- Disappointment with the dismal performance in its economic and administrative functions in the backdrop of a changing global ideological ecosystem encouraged a sharp de facto downsizing of the Indian state’s role.
- ‘Private’ sector became the new holy cow in place of the ‘state sector’. It mindlessly privileges the agenda of corporates. It transacts in the idiom of stock exchanges and international rating agencies.
- Today, those who bear the brunt of the consequences of shrunken and unresponsive state are the farmer and farm labour, the migrant worker, the unemployed, those in the unorganised sector, the rural poor, and the small entrepreneur.
- They are paying the highest price for the necessary but unbearable lockdown. They are either stranded far away from home, or confined to their homes with no work and incomes, unsupported by the state. Underfunded public health systems are unable to serve them.
- Tips on how to beat lockdown blues, how to work from home, use Zoom, spend quality time with family that fill our pullouts are irrelevant for them.
- But the dominant strand of public discourse is out of its depth. Worse, this discourse can be gamed from time to time. And the alternative discourse is too feeble to draw the attention of the government to the grave implications of COVID-19 for the weak in our society.
Time for tough questions
- Announcing stimulus packages that address the supply side alone without briefing up the demand side will be self-defeating to corporates.
- Prioritising the needs of corporate entities will lead to convulsions in our body politic in the wake of COVID-19. The state is in danger of forfeiting legitimacy if it does not ensure the survival and revival of the marginalised sections.
- The country should begin a vigorous discourse on redefining every aspect of its involvement in our collective political, economic and social life.
- The relation between the state and economy, its role in allocating resources and addressing questions of inequality, its duty to provide basic human needs, the extent of the market’s role in providing services such as health, education, civic amenities, and the responsibility of the state and private enterprise towards deprived sections, need urgent attention.
- We should re-examine the efficacy of our political structures too: the equation between citizens and government and what its implications are for individual freedom, privacy and national security; the equation between legislature and executive; the balance of administrative and financial power between provinces and the union on the one hand and provinces and local bodies on the other.
- The way legislatures are elected and governments are made and unmade must be scrutinised. Our outrage at the power of big money in our electoral system has not arrested its growth.