India is seeing a systemic failure of robust systems created to tackle scenarios like the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak and there’s only one reason why this is happening. The unbridled centralisation of power that the Prime Minister’s Office wields.
The outbreak has made one thing clear. The centralisation of power in India is so enormous that the only thing ministers are capable of doing, till they’ve not received orders from above, is sing “go karona(corona) go”. What’s worse? They’re not even in tune. What’s tragic? They’re singing this in chorus, in a group. These people, chosen to run our country, have no clue what ‘karona’ (corona) is or how it’s spreading. Social media has dubbed such folks as covidiots.
Pharaohs are back
If I had to do a ‘Centralisation of power for dummies’ explainer, I’d probably explain it through a pyramid. But to really hit it home, I’ll explain it through the governance style of the pharaohs–the inventors of the pyramid.
The pharaoh had viziers and high priests under him, to whom he would give his commands. The viziers and high priests would then trickle down the command to the royal overseers who would then pass the command to the district governors. They would then send those commands to the scribes which were then implemented on the common folk– artisans, labourers and farmers. At no point were any of the stakeholders below the pharaoh consulted, except on occasion the viziers and high priests.
Change the names: from pharaoh to prime minister, from viziers and high priests to bureaucrats, from royal overseers to cabinet ministers, from district governors to chief ministers, and you won’t see much of a change in how power is wielded today in India.
In fact the artisan, labourers and farmers suffer as much as they did back then. Look at the plight of migrant daily-wage labourers walking over hundreds of miles to reach their homes under the Covid-19 lockdown and it would remind you of the exodus of slaves of the pharaoh. Only here, they’ve no prophet to guide them or give them hope. The poor are on their own. They either die of Covid-19, or of hunger.
Here comes Covid, look away
In India, centralisation of power is looked upon quite favourably as a sign of the government (in this case the prime minister) being strong, powerful and decisive. What is, however, overlooked is that the heavy weight of powers that lie at the tip of the pyramid slowly and steadily corrodes the foundations of the pyramid below, which are in this case systems and departments created for better governance, especially in a large country like India. In today’s India, these systems and departments seem nothing more than places to store dossiers.
The first case of Covid-19 was detected on 30 January in India. Owing to the seriousness of this disease in countries like Italy, France and Spain, besides China, India had a heads up on how to go about tackling this disease, which would surely become an epidemic in India.
But what was the Modi government doing back then? Preparing for ‘Namaste Trump’. What it should’ve been doing? Creating a blueprint of steps to be taken to prevent Covid-19 from becoming an epidemic in India. Who could’ve done this while our prime minister entertained Trump? The minister of health and family welfare.
Another stark example of centralisation is how India ran out of PPEs (personal protective equipment) like surgical masks, gloves, ventilators, etc. Since, the World Health Organisation had asked countries to stockpile PPE, the union ministry of commerce and industry issued a notification banning the export of all sorts of PPE the very next day after the first Covid-19 case was reported in India on 30 January. However, a week later, the Centre amended this ban and allowed export of all types of gloves, except NBR gloves as well as surgical masks. The ban only came into effect later on 19 March, when the government finally began to realise the gravity of the situation.
Now to the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). This force is third in line in a medical emergency, after doctors, paramedics and health workers. The NDRF flagged the threat of Covid-19 virus in February itself and has apparently since then started training 600 of its personnel in every battalion, each battalion having 1,150 personnel, to help health workers contain the Covid-19 outbreak.
There are 12 NDRF battalions spread across India. Director general of NDRF, S.N. Pradhan, in an interview came across as someone who was not abreast with the chronology of cases in India. He said: “In February, when there was not even one case in India, we had alerted about the virus coming from China.” What Pradhan should’ve known is that by February, there were 6 reported cases of Covid-19 patients in India.
It was only on 4 March that the minister of health and family welfare, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, announced compulsory screening of all international passengers arriving in India because the virus was not just coming from China but from Europe too. Till then, only passengers from China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia were being screened.
Centralisation: Demonetisation to GST
The centralisation of power has manifested itself many times over since 2014. Be it demonetisation, where none of the stakeholders were consulted. Or GST, whose faulty implementation was corrected for many months and is still not seamless. Or dilution of Article 370 where an entire state was made into a Union territory overnight. In fact, Parliament was kept operational despite fears of a virus spread, after it came to light that BJP MP Dushyant Singh had attended a party with singer Kanika Kapoor, who was later tested positive for Covid-19. Dushyant then went on to attend House proceedings and also showed up at a breakfast meeting hosted by President Ram Nath Kovind. All this, just to pass the finance bill that was not even discussed.
The Modi government sure has its signature style of governance and is addicted to the taste of centralised power: one where orders are given, but results are barely questioned. Till today, the intelligence failure that led to Pulwama attacks has not been explained.
Holding videoconferencing with local authorities to assess the ground realities and ensuring food supplies for the poor is beneath the Modi government. The Centre is busy building its legacy with statues of unity and central vistas.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.