The state comes into existence for the sake of life and continues to exist for the sake of good life.” The first half of this famous quote from Aristotle’s Politics sums up why we must support Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unprecedented announcement of a nation-wide lockdown for 21 days to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The state exists precisely because, when needed, decisions like this can be taken to save lives. The second part of the quote invites us to nuance our support.
I am no fan of this government. I have repeatedly characterised it as “electoral authoritarianism” and held it responsible for dismantling our republic, brick by brick. Its cynical use of communal divide and stoking of anti-Muslim hatred is nothing short of treason. I find this government incapable of managing a large and complex economy, far less a multi-ethnic society, like India in the 21st Century. No PM has been as economical with truth as Narendra Modi. I find no reason to change any of these views.
Yet, at this stage, we must check our oppositional instinct and support the PM’s decision for lockdown. It should not be merely verbal support. We should actively work towards successful implementation of this lockdown. This is not the moment for adversarial politics. India needs both the government and the opposition to face this crisis.
No right path
A call for support does not mean that nation-wide lockdown is the only possible or sensible decision. There is more than one opinion about how to assess the risk of Covid-19. And there is a debate about how to mitigate the health hazard that it poses. Some experts say that the dangers are overstated, since the mortality rates may be lower than feared. In any case, the virus is bound to affect the entire population sooner or later. In this reading, the economic and human cost of lockdown outweighs the benefits of slowing down the spread of the virus. Aggressive testing in suspected population groups and widespread random checking could be more prudent than locking down the whole country.
The Modi government has gone by the other, currently dominant, line of reasoning. According to this, we simply cannot risk the level of active coronavirus cases that Italy or Spain has today. Given the sorry state of our public health infrastructure, we would be courting a catastrophe that could lead to millions of avoidable fatalities. For India, prevention is the only cure. A lockdown at this stage may not prevent eventual spread of coronavirus to most of the population, but it would defer the process. That would avoid a sudden raid on our hospitals, and the collapse that is bound to follow. We can spread the risk over a longer period and prepare ourselves better and research vaccines. Lockdown is a regrettable yet inevitable path for saving India’s future. That’s basically what PM Modi said in his address.
Now, there is no way of telling which of these is the right path. Political leaders who have to take this call face a situation that has few parallels and no readymade dos and don’ts. Even the best of leaders, and not just the less-intellectual ones like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, can look bad in the mirror of history. So, in such a situation, we must support their choices unless we are absolutely sure that the path chosen by them is malicious and ruinous for the country. In this instance, we don’t know what could be ruinous. And we do know that Modi would like to get this decision right, or at least be seen to have taken the right decision. Unlike 2016 demonetisation, this is not a solution in search of a problem. And unlike the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, this is not a design to divide India and reap political benefits. The oppositional response cannot be the same as in those instances.
Add one final consideration. A crisis like this calls for a clear, authoritative decision. Indeed, a crisis like this is one is the reason human beings need state in the first place. Indecision is worse than a wrong decision. And a half-implemented decision runs the risk of combining the worst of both worlds. So, once the decision is made, the only sensible way forward is to back it in full. The use of the National Disaster Management Act to declare ‘lockdown’, overriding the powers of the states over law and order, may be legally suspect, but that seems to be the best way of handling the pandemic within our constitutional scheme.
Ask, alert, expose
The success of Modi’s decision depends on the opposition. The opposition need not and must not endorse whatever the government does in pursuit of this decision. Speaking of the King’s rights in the British system, Walter Bagehot said he has “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn”. Similarly, in this context, the opposition has three rights: to ask, to alert, and to expose.
India needs the opposition to exercise these rights. For, left to itself, the Modi government could go for lockdown without any safety net. That would be ruinous for the country and might lead to failure of the decision itself. This constructive opposition must begin right away. We already know the enormous human cost of the lockdown, especially for the poor and other vulnerable sections of society. So far, the central government has dodged its responsibility on this score.
The task force promised by PM Modi in his first address is yet to materialise. The much-awaited economic package is nowhere in sight. The PM did not mention anything about immediate relief for the millions who have and will lose their livelihood. If the opposition is quiet, the government may turn its back to these pressing concerns, as it did during demonetisation.
The government also needs to be pushed for taking more active responsibility for the health care of those infected. In a pandemic, the government cannot pass the buck to individual citizens to save themselves from infection or go for unaffordable private health care. Similarly, having rightfully taken the charge, the Modi government cannot now pass the buck to state governments that are strapped for resources. In an extreme situation, the government must be prepared to ‘requisition’ private hospitals.
Finally, given the proclivity of this government, the opposition needs to be on guard to prevent this national health emergency from being used for eroding democratic rights and usurping extra-constitutional powers. The opposition must ask questions, alert the authorities at various levels and expose the gaps to ensure a successful implementation of the lockdown.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.