The sight of Prime Minister Narendra Modi holding a marathon meeting with the chief ministers of India was something to behold. A patient Modi was finally listening to the opinion of others. The Modi we have seen at the helm since 2014 isn’t one who seems to feel the need for consultations. Just 50 days back, he announced the first lockdown — without consulting with the states that had to implement it. Most of his big-ticket announcements have happened via sudden addresses to the nation or without broad consensus – be it demonetisation or scrapping Article 370 or lockdown.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, is bringing about major changes — not just in the world but also in our Prime Minister. Modi has held multiple video conferences with chief ministers, sarpanches of gram panchayats, and even AYUSH professionals.
But even this consultation with CMs was earlier limited to a third of them attending – some from very small states, or those with issues of language didn’t attend or were not allotted time to speak.
In the 11 May meeting, however, the states spoke their mind – West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee expressed anger at ‘politics’ during the time of Covid-19 and many chief ministers talked of the migrant workers’ problem.
The PM asked the chief ministers to come up post-Lockdown 3 plans. So far, so good.
Is it then a signal of things to come? An indication that Modi will function very differently from how he has over the last six years? Will Covid-19 make India the truly federal state that it was supposed to be or will it remain a one-man show?
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Modus operandi — surprise and shock
The Narendra Modi government functions on both the vision of its leader and the desire to spring a surprise, leaving no wiggle room or space for debates.
The planning commission was dismantled early on in Modi’s tenure. Then came demonetisation via an 8 pm address to the nation in 2016. Then a spate of policy decisions in his second term made a splash as much for the speed with which they were taken as well as the surprise element attached to them. Be it the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019, or diluting Article 370 and dividing Jammu and Kashmir into Union Territories, or the Citizenship (Amendment) Act along with nationwide NRC. Protests and bellicose opposition made no impact on Modi, and sealed and strengthened his reputation of being autocratic. He had little time for consultation with his own ministers, let alone the opposition, and didn’t seem too bothered about traditions and niceties.
Modi’s initial day-long Janata Curfew was almost like a trailer for the real show, which would come through an address to the nation later, a 21-day lockdown with a notice of just four hours. Modi prescribed a Covid-19 ‘cure’ and all the states had to dutifully follow it, no matter the chaos it created.
A democratic Modi?
Monday’s meeting saw states asking for legroom to formulate their own plans to curtail the spread of the coronavirus and decide on the lockdown. But they still seemed to be dependent on the Centre for directives and direction and, of course, financial aid.
This was the most democratic one has seen Modi so far. The TV visuals of Modi interacting with a screen full of chief ministers made social media light up. The Congress even suggested such meetings every month.
So, the question is, should a crisis like this call for Modi to change his style of functioning and truly become the chief of a federation of states? Is it time for Modi to shed his autocratic behaviour and top-down approach and opt for consensus and reconciliation so that the collective wisdom of all leaders can help India tide over the pandemic?
Or is it too much to expect the leopard to change his spots? Modi asked the chief ministers to give ideas and a broad plan to fight Covid-19. Then, just 24 hours later, addressed the nation and stole the CMs’ thunder by announcing a Rs 20-lakh crore package.
With this attitude, can one even think of any sort of consensus government in which the ruling party and opposition rises above party politics? Maybe something like what Winston Churchill had accomplished in wartime England – an all-party coalition. Or like Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao’s dream project of a federal front of all regional parties except the BJP and the Congress, which he was pursuing before the 2019 polls.
Or is this idea unfathomable at a time when the BJP has a clear majority and the opposition is not quite pink in health? Also, all the previous dinner photo ops of party leaders gathering at Sonia Gandhi’s residence or rallying at Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata just before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections showed the schisms in the opposition quite clearly.
Will Modi now become a man of consensus and take the country out of this economic, social and health crisis with the confidence of a statesman and humility of a mass leader?
Views are personal.
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